A history of jazz’s relationship with organised crime

From The Economist:

“Strange fruit,” writes T.J. English, is “the seminal jazz song.” This haunting ballad, written by a Jewish high schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, in 1937 and burned into the collective cultural memory by Billie Holiday two years later, portrays the crime of lynching as central to the brutal history of the United States. “It is generally agreed that jazz as a new musical art form began to take shape in the early years of the 20th century. It is not generally commented upon that jazz, in its origins, was a response to the horror and reality of lynching in America.”

Mr English makes the persuasive argument that the birth of jazz, rooted in the African-American experience, was “nothing less than an attempt to achieve salvation through the tonal reordering of time and space.” But jazz could not scrub off the stain of violence. “Dangerous Rhythms” is not a book about music as an art form; it is instead a nuanced account of how, in the 60 or so years between the introduction of Prohibition and the enforcement of the rico Act—which brought the mafia to its knees in the 1980s—the development of jazz was facilitated by some of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century.

Music brought business to the mobsters’ speakeasies. The most renowned names in jazz history, including Count Basie and Duke Ellington, are linked with the names of the gangsters who fostered their careers. Louis Armstrong got his start in the seedy clubs of Louisiana: “One thing I always admired about those bad men when I was a youngster in New Orleans is that they all liked good music,” he said.

The criminal underworld was a male-dominated place, yet some female performers learned to navigate it. Mary Lou Williams, a pianist and composer, was managed by Joe Glaser (who also represented Holiday and Armstrong); Glaser had helped run Al Capone’s prostitution scheme in Chicago. Williams was under no illusions when it came to the jazz scene in the 1930s: “Everyone was like a hoodlum.”

Mr English—a journalist and author who has written several books on gangs in America and Cuba—chronicles the privileges of white supremacy. Black artists found protection where they could in a society built on injustice. The second half of the book turns to the career of Frank Sinatra. His ties with organised crime are hardly a secret, but Mr English lays out those brazen connections with clarity.

Link to the rest at The Economist

‘Straits’ Review: Magellan Maligned

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you ask most people to name the first person to circumnavigate the globe, they will likely answer Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese mariner who sailed on behalf of Spain in 1519. But Magellan never even attempted the feat, and he didn’t live to see it accomplished by members of his crew. As we approach the 500th anniversary of their achievement next month, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of contrarian works such as “1492,” “Amerigo” and “The Spanish Armada,” takes exception to the “tradition of hero worship” that persists around Magellan. In “Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan,” he launches his broadside.

Magellan was born to an aristocratic family around 1480 on Portugal’s rocky coast. As a boy, he served as a page in the court of Manuel I in Lisbon, where he absorbed the chivalric ethos of the times and prepared for a military career. Starting in 1505, he joined campaigns to India and Africa, as Portugal claimed a share of the fantastically lucrative spice trade.

After falling out with King Manuel, Magellan defected to Portugal’s archrival, Spain, and in 1519 launched his celebrated voyage, destined for the fabled Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia. Because the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the world into two zones of influence, with Portugal claiming everything east of a line drawn in the Atlantic Ocean and Spain everything to the west, Magellan would approach Asia via the Americas.

On Sept. 20, 1519, the fleet left Spain with five ships, some 240 men and boys, provisions for two years and a stock of trade goods. From the start, as Mr. Fernández-Armesto relates, the company was rent by tension between its Spanish and Portuguese members, and a power struggle between their captain and his second in command, the Spaniard Juan de Cartagena. After a stormy two-month crossing, the flotilla sighted Brazil and veered southward, probing for a rumored strait through the continent.

In April 1520, Magellan ordered winter quarters in the harbor of San Julián, in eastern Patagonia. Faced with months of freezing weather and dwindling rations, a faction of Spanish officers mutinied, demanding to return home. Magellan quashed the uprising with characteristic decisiveness and brutality, killing a pair of the offenders, torturing others and marooning two, including Cartagena, on a deserted island. Also that dismal winter, one ship, the Santiago, was lost when it ran aground in a storm.

In August, with the approach of spring, the expedition continued to reconnoiter the forbidding coast. Nearing the tip of the continent, they finally discovered the channel that today bears Magellan’s name. But to negotiate its 350 miles of treacherous shoals and devilish currents required more than a month, not to mention fortitude, superb seamanship and outright luck. For commercial utility it would never rival the routes already established by the Portuguese.

While still in the strait, another band of mutineers seized the armada’s largest ship, the San Antonio, and bolted for Spain, carrying essential provisions as well as reports of their captain’s cruelty and recklessness. The three remaining vessels entered the Pacific, which Magellan named for its initially gentle seas, then caught the trade winds and rocketed westward. “But,” Mr. Fernández-Armesto writes, “the benignity of the weather was like a villain’s smile,” luring the fleet into an ocean immense beyond their comprehension. Over nearly four months, as their numbers declined from starvation and scurvy, the men sailed for more than 7,000 excruciating miles without landfall until, on March 6, 1521, they spied the islands of Rota and Guam, in the Marianas. When some islanders made off with a skiff and other goods, Magellan retaliated mercilessly, killing several villagers and burning scores of houses and boats.

Later that month, the fleet reached the Philippines, which Mr. Fernández-Armesto, in one of the many contrarian arguments he makes throughout the book, suggests was Magellan’s secret destination all along. The strangers were well received on the island of Cebu, but imposing himself in a conflict between rival chiefs, Magellan made an ill-advised attack on neighboring Mactan, where he and several of his men were slain in battle on April 27, 1521.

Although it seems to run counter to the fierce determination that Magellan had shown throughout the expedition, Mr. Fernández-Armesto believes that the captain, preferring to die a hero rather than return a failure, “crafted his death to suit a narrative he composed in his own mind before the event, imagining a knightly consummation in a battle sanctified by crusading ideals.”

Taking stock of their situation, the survivors scuttled the Concepción for lack of crew and, under the command of the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Elcano, steered their remaining two vessels to the Moluccas, where they loaded the hulls with precious spices. The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese, whose zone of influence the expedition had violated, but the battered Victoria navigated the treacherous waters around the tip of Africa and arrived in Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, with 18 of the 240 souls who had sailed three years before.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Freud Explains Cancel Culture

From The Wall Street Journal:

There sure is a lot of moralism going around. Censorship, condemnation, excommunication, demands for apologies. There are even spontaneous chants of “Shame! Shame! Shame!” directed at the villain of the moment. I recently saw an ad for a psychology workshop that argued outright that people from “privileged” groups should “hurt” and “feel shame.” People are guilt-tripped for using disposable straws, liking a canceled song or speaking “ableist” words.

How did we descend from the libertine culture of the 1960s—“if it feels good, do it”—into a pit of endless shame?

Ask Sigmund Freud. He divided the psyche into three parts: the id (unconscious drives), the ego (the conscious self) and the superego (the site of moral ideals, inhibitions and shame). Freud saw mental health as the result of balance—being aware of feelings as they come and go, but not letting any one part of the psyche become too dominant.

A large amount of mental illness is attributed to an overactive superego. Cycles of harsh self-criticism can induce depression or push people toward drugs or alcohol. Inhibitions around things like cleanliness or public speaking can underlie anxiety disorders. Rigid prohibitions can contribute to sexual dysfunctions and eating disorders. Judgments, righteous anger and control can lead to interpersonal problems.

Some psychoanalysts argue that the superego, in its purest form, is linked to a “death drive,” which seeks to regulate all thoughts and feelings down to zero. This is the suffocating aspect of Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Fully internalized, it’s the logic of suicide.

The superego isn’t always ethical. Someone could feel intense shame for having something stuck in his teeth during a date and no guilt at all about cheating on his taxes. The superego is often irrational, though its pronouncements can feel as if they come from on high.

. . . .

How does all this fit into the transformation of the 1960s counterculture? In the 1960s, many figures on the left tried to abolish the superego (some consciously, others less deliberately), and this goal seeped into the entire counterculture. It wasn’t only the overthrow of “the patriarchy,” an anti-father ethos, or the shifting of sexual mores, but a deeper attempt to overthrow rules and gratify desire.

Obviously it didn’t work. Selfish desires are too destructive. Children need discipline; societies need laws. New rules emerged—rules that were somehow still opposed to the old rules but attempted to perform the same functions. The result is a patchwork morality that’s harsh in some places, absent in others and ultimately incoherent. If excessive sexuality is causing trauma and exploitation, rather than curtailing sexuality, activists demonize masculinity, deny the differences between the sexes, and eliminate due process.

Hypermorality is now everywhere. “Implicit bias” training attempts to purify the unconscious of forbidden thoughts. There are the extreme inhibitions of safety culture and the use of ostracization to target heretics. Then, there are grandiose moral ideals. Zero carbon. Zero gun crime. Zero pedestrian deaths. Zero tolerance.

There’s also the misattunement of moralization. Criminals get compassion while police are vilified. There’s sometimes more judgment of people who don’t wear a mask than of people who rob stores. Insults directed at white people or men are seen as the epitome of justice and wisdom, while even unconscious bias against other groups is seen as unforgivable.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Illusionist Brain

From The Wall Street Journal:

Psychological science and stage magic are the best of frenemies. Both scientists and magicians attempt, for instance, to uncover the workings of the human mind, albeit toward different ends. The former seek to share their methods and results widely, for applications in medicine, education or management, or for the sheer sake of knowledge. The latter mean to deceive and entertain, while keeping their methods proprietary; replication is very much not the point. The two fields also differ in their standards of success. In science, statistical patterns count as discovery. On the stage, a single slipup spells disaster.

In “The Illusionist Brain: The Neuroscience of Magic,” Jordi Camí and Luis Martínez elucidate the ways the two disciplines can illuminate each other. The book adds to the steady stream of academic articles and popular-science books published in the past 15 years—among them Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde’s “Sleights of Mind” (2010) and Gustav Kuhn’s “Experiencing the Impossible” (2019)—that explain how tricks fool us. Dr. Camí, a professor of pharmacology and a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism, and Mr. Martínez, a neuroscientist, offer an accessible introduction, spending the first third of their book laying the groundwork for how the brain operates, before delving into the mechanics of magic.

One central message is that the brain has limitations, leading to apparent flaws in perception, attention and memory. For example, each retina has a blind spot where it attaches to the optic nerve. According to Dr. Camí and Mr. Martínez, “this is a point where we should not see anything, but we do not even realize that the blind spot exists because the brain fills that gap.” Ultimately, the authors write, “our brains are in charge of building reality.”

. . . .

In . . . a classic study of “memory reconsolidation”—participants are asked to assess the speed at which two cars either “hit” or “smashed” into each other; when asked later whether they had seen any broken glass as a result of the accident, those in the higher-velocity “smashed” group were more likely to falsely recall seeing shards of glass at the scene.

As the authors move from such laboratory fare to magical illusions, however, they rarely reveal all. They suggest ways in which an illusionist might direct our attention away from the pocketing of an object or talk us into recalling an action that never actually happened, but the book is light on concrete walk-throughs. Maybe the authors intended to remain abstract to protect the secrets of the trade. The most satisfying demonstration is a video they point to—viewable online—that annotates the beats of a magic trick using the labels “divided attention,” “attention capture,” “active deviation of attention,” “neutral maneuver,” “physical concealment,” “amodal completion” and “speed.”

What’s amazing is how stubborn the brain is in its fallibility. There’s the phenomenon called “choice blindness,” in which people are easily tricked into justifying a decision they never made. There’s also “choice blindness blindness,” in which people exhibit the phenomenon of choice blindness and then deny their susceptibility when it is explained to them.

While the book focuses on how magicians undercut our smarts, it also touches on the muddier terrain of why we enjoy such brazen humbling. The authors don’t explore this ground fully, noting little more than magic’s inducement of wonder. I suspect it’s a combination of a few factors. First, it highlights human errancy in a nonthreatening way. (The psychologist Peter McGraw has described humor as resulting from “benign violations” of how we believe the world ought to be.) Second, it displays a performer’s ingenuity or dexterity at exploiting such mental bugs. Many also see magic as presenting tantalizing puzzles, but some audiences don’t want a solution. As the magician Teller once told me, “it’s the joy of being defeated by art.” Sometimes, there’s also an engaging narrative, although acts rarely tap into deep emotions like sorrow or anger, denying magic the reach of music or film.

. . . .

In fact, magic and science pair best at the educational level, with science explaining to nonmagicians how magic works, and magic demonstrating scientific ideas to nonscientists. Still, the authors suggest some scientific questions about magic, probing the neural correlates as one witnesses the “impossible,” exploring the characteristics of those who dislike magic or studying the possibility of using artificial intelligence to invent tricks. The latter would be a feat. Using AI simply to predict human reactions to elaborate acts would be a grand challenge, requiring common-sense reasoning and perhaps emotional processing.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

30-year-old retiree earned $97,000 in passive income from Amazon last year: Here’s how she got started

From CNBC:

In 2017, by age 24, Rachel Richards had already worked as a financial advisor and then as a financial analyst at a manufacturing firm. After picking up her license, she began working as a Realtor. No matter what kind of work she was doing, one thing remained constant: People in her life were constantly looking to her for help with their finances.

“I began to wonder, ‘Why aren’t they learning on their own? Why aren’t they reading books, or listening to podcasts or looking on websites?’” says Richards, now 30.

Then it dawned on her: Most of the financial books she’d come across were boring and esoteric, bordering on intimidating. And few were targeted toward young women. “So I thought to myself, ‘How can I make this topic sassy and fun and simple?’”

Richards began writing her first book, “Money Honey” in January 2017 and self-published on Amazon that September. By just about any measure, it was a massive success. In its first month, the book brought in $600. The next month it brought in $1,000. “After that, it was pulling in $1,500 a month pretty consistently,” she says.

. . . .

The robust income she earned from publishing didn’t hurt. All told, through the end of July 2022, Richards has sold about 25,000 copies each of “Money Honey” and her second self-published book, “Passive Income, Aggressive Retirement,” a 2019 release which details her strategies for early retirement.

In 2021, royalties from the two titles netted Richards more than $97,000 in profit. Here’s how she did it.

She self-published online

Richards, like many aspiring authors, dreamed of seeing her name in print through the window of her local bookstore. She also hoped that with a traditional book deal, the publisher would handle the labor-intensive task of promoting the book. That turned out not to be the case.

“The more I asked authors about their experience, the more I learned that publishers expect you to do 99% of the marketing and promotion,” Richards says. “If you’re an author with no platform, they’re not going to send you out on a national book tour.”

Once she learned she’d have to flog the book herself no matter what, Richards was far less inclined to give a publisher a big chunk of her royalties. “When you get a book deal, you earn a 10% to 15% royalty. When you publish on Amazon, you earn a 35% to 70% royalty.” (Royalty structures vary between different formats, such as e-books and paperbacks, and factor in costs such as shipping and tax.)

She also says that self-publishing guarantees creative control, even if it comes at a cost. Thinking her book wouldn’t sell and hoping to limit her losses, Richards spent just $561 to hire an editor and a cover designer for “Money Honey.” She says a more “realistic” minimum budget is at least $2,000 and ideally would include an interior formatter as well. She spent $3,500 putting together her second book.

Link to the rest at CNBC

The Wedding Present

From The Atlantic:

During my very first term of high school, I failed elementary algebra, and as a consequence was doomed to study German. It was 1942, when the war was well under way—the Second World War, for my generation always “the” war, despite all that came after. Mine was a traditional school that claimed old-fashioned standards; today they might be regarded as archaic. Four years of Latin were required, and a choice between French and German. There seemed no need for Spanish; Cervantes notwithstanding, it gave off a faint hint of infra dig, of roiling Central and South American populations at a time when these were remote.

Together with nearly everyone else, I had opted for French. German, especially for a Jewish student in 1942, was a sinister tongue contaminated by its criminal speakers, repellent in its very substance. The massive murders of European Jews were already in progress when, in that same year, the infamous 90-minute Wannsee Conference systematized and codified the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” a concealing German euphemism among others equally flagrant. The term deportation invokes a kind of authoritarian dignity—Napoleon on Elba, say—papering over the terror of outright savagery in the abduction of millions of defenseless Jews torn from their homes. Was I to be condemned to the penalty of learning German solely for the sin of flunking algebra?

Still, the German teacher—Frau Doktor Eva Lange, Ph.D., whose doctorate was in linguistics—was contractually in place, and also the German department and its four-semester curriculum. And so the obligatory German class was filled—for the most part with flunkees from Latin, but no others (that I was aware of) from elementary algebra. A number were the children of post–World War I German immigrants who heard German at home but could neither speak nor read it. For these, the language carried no explicit threat or horror: Theirs was a pursuit of nostalgic family retrieval.

Our teacher was middle-aged and graying and German-born. She might have passed for one of the Jewish refugees who had lately escaped Hitler’s genocidal reach and were beginning to settle in parts of New York. Their children, mostly native to Berlin and Vienna and Antwerp and Paris, were being pressed by the speech department to erase their accents, while in our class, in that very hour, Doktor Lange was urging the perfection of our German. The ubiquitous ch was particularly difficult for American tongues. It was this offensive consonant, placed somewhere between phlegm and a sibilant, that was mocked in anti-Nazi wartime movies. Under Doktor Lange’s tutelage it, and also the umlaut, had a place of honor. She hoped to lure us into the sonorities and ingenuities of the language. She surprised us by teaching the dazzling phonetic morphings of the “High German consonant shift.”

. . . .

By the end of the war, in 1945, more was emerging from that history. In the movie houses, between the feature and the cartoon, a film of a British bulldozer pushing gargantuan heaps of twisted corpses was shown again and again. Studies recording scores of witnessed atrocities began to proliferate. The term Holocaust had yet to take hold, and when it did, it filled a void: War implied combat by two or more armed forces. The Jews of Europe were neither combatants nor enemies. They were, or had been, fellow citizens.

Yet few of these burgeoning disclosures had fully entered public awareness; nearly two decades passed before the meaning of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and all the others became rooted in popular discourse. My high-school years, from 1942 until Germany’s defeat, were mainly untouched. During the summer break, groups of classmates—those not vacationing or working as camp counselors—met to write patriotic letters to American soldiers. Food rationing was imposed, but no one went hungry. The lack of nylon stockings was lamented. Young men were drafted by the thousands.

. . . .

At commencement I won the German Prize. It was a 19th-century history of German painting, a lavish art book, the colors brilliantly true, printed on exquisite linen paper. As I later learned, there was no graduate German Prize; there never had been. Doktor Lange had paid for this treasure out of her own pocket.

. . . .

Germany was in collapse, its bombed-out cities in ruins, its people dazed and demoralized. Berlin, where swastika banners had lately hung in their hundreds, was cut in two, half parceled out to the victorious Soviets. Hitler had promised conquest and Lebensraum; instead, Aryan zeal was muzzled, Aryan belief bludgeoned. And meanwhile I was steeped in Goethe, Lessing, and Schiller.

It was then that my correspondence with Karl Gustav Specht began. Precisely how it happened I can no longer recall, but I surmise that it came about through one of those postwar exchanges, Americans writing to their foreign counterparts, who replied in their own language. Each would enrich the other’s skills. Each knew nothing about the other. But at the very start, Karl Gustav Specht told me that he was a soldier who had been at the Eastern Front. A soldier? This meant the Wehrmacht, the so-called regular army, soon to be exposed as a force as fully implicated in overt criminality as the SS itself. The Eastern Front? This meant Stalingrad, the battle that devastated and routed the German military—fatally short of supplies, its straggling troops unfed and shoeless and dying in the Russian cold, more than 700,000 killed, wounded, or captured. (Supply trains elsewhere were at the same time industriously moving their human cargoes.) On May 7, 1945, the Germans officially surrendered to the Allies, and on May 9 to the Soviet Union.

To Karl Gustav Specht’s introductory greeting, I wrote back politely. Beyond this one biographical datum—his presence at the Eastern Front—nothing else of his experience appeared in his letter. Nor did I pursue more. My own circumstances spoke for themselves: I was an American student with a literary bent who was attracted to foreign languages. I was also attracted to Karl Gustav Specht’s voice, impressively bookish and high-minded. If I stripped him of his recent history, I might think of him as kind and enlightened. An idealist. A humanist. But he had no irony, or avoided it, and his tone, even when it carried a smile, was clear of humor. He was above all earnest. And it was plain that he delighted in our exchanges; so did I.

Looking back at a distance of decades, it seems perverse—even lunatic—that a young Jewish woman in New York was corresponding, in a friendly way, with a soldier loyal to his national duty, a German who had only a short time before served at the Eastern Front, who belonged to the nation that had conceived and carried out the Decree Against Folk Pests. Of which I was one. And still I knew nothing: not his age, nothing of his family, no inkling of his inward thought. Of his outward thought I learned much: art, philosophy, Roman history, his mastery of languages, English and French and Greek and Latin. We had the Aeneid in common; we could speak feelingly of infelix Dido on her pyre. At the center of it all was an unnamed silence.

But once, only once, he had written, “Ich hasse keine Rasse.” “I hate no race.” It was a sentence that was left floating like a wayward mote in the middle of a vacuum.

In june of 1945, one month after Germany’s surrender, my brother graduated from dental school, and was instantly sent, as a second lieutenant, to Camp Grant, in Rockford, Illinois, to join an Army medical unit. He was 22, and was assigned to housing for unmarried officers. Abutting Camp Grant, some distance away, was Camp Hampshire, where German prisoners of war were interned. Camps like this were scattered all over the Midwest, partly to keep the prisoners away from the bigger cities, and also to supply farm and factory labor at a time when such workers were scarce. The Germans were paid wages identical to those of the Americans. They ate identical meals, and feasted on whatever they wished from an abundantly stocked camp canteen. There were manifold entertainments—movies, some in German, supplied by public libraries, and performances the prisoners organized for themselves. They were permitted, on their honor, to frequent restaurants in the center of town, where Jim Crow routinely turned away the Black American soldiers of Camp Grant. German friendships with the local population were mushrooming. Following their release and repatriation, several thousand former prisoners returned to become American citizens. Intermarriages abounded.

On a blizzardy midwinter night, when a pelting of sleet was blinding and ice smothered trees and roads and footpaths, my brother received an apologetic telephone call from Camp Hampshire: It was an emergency. The alternate dentist who was to have been on duty was not to be found; it was not my brother’s turn, but would he come immediately? A German officer, an Oberstleutnant, was in howling agony. Half his face was swollen, a throbbing molar was festering, the pain was unbearable.

My brother was shaken: He had pledged to serve and succor and heal and repair and renew. But here, unexpectedly, was a Nazi soldier, a lieutenant colonel no less, one who had commanded obedience, and was himself obliged to obey—to do what? What was the nature of his complicity? Had he ordered the ditches to be dug, and the naked women with their little ones lined up on the brink to be shot and tumble in?

A below-zero blast stung my brother’s eyes, and the dental offices were a long and miserable trek away. A suffering man was waiting for him, a man dedicated to the credo that a Jew was a Folk Pest, no different from vermin. Zyklon B, a common pesticide, the gas used in the death camps, was manufactured by the German firm IG Farben, a conglomerate that included Bayer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. Although Bayer lost the trademark in 1918, its name was still commonly used for aspirin, a popular remedy for toothache.

Were these brutal associations in my brother’s thoughts? I cannot say, but he knew what he must do.

He followed his skills and their urgencies. He injected the anesthesia. He spoke to the patient as he would speak to any patient, reassuring, explaining the procedure to come. He wrote prescriptions for post-care medication. When all of these ameliorations were completed, and the unendurable pain was relieved, the German broke into shamelessly grateful sobs.

And then my brother did what he had known he must do. He exacted his punishment.

Ich bin Jude,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

Oxford University Press Is Migrating Its Catalogue to Its Online Platform

From Publishing Perspectives:

A migration of Oxford University Press‘ books as well as journals to the online platform Oxford Academic announced Wednesday (August 3) is expected to “further streamline access to high-quality scholarly content,” according to media messaging.

At this point, the company writes, more than 42,000 books and more than 500,000 chapters have been uploaded to the site, which already hosts some 500 journals and roughly 3 million articles.

Last month’s migrations included books from Oxford Scholarship OnlineUniversity Press Scholarship OnlineOxford Handbooks OnlineOxford Medicine OnlineOxford Clinical Psychology, the AMA Manual of Style, and Very Short Introductions.

. . . .

While it may seem something that a company as prominent as this in academic publishing would have done before now, the rationale for the move is one that makes sense: the ability to create a one-stop point of access and search for a broad base of high-profile and disparate content.

“By collating core research books and journals onto one online platform,” Oxford’s media messaging says, “Oxford University Press is better enabling its users to rapidly share and seamlessly connect ideas that advance research.

“This will continue a cycle of scholarship that furthers the press’ mission to create world-class academic and educational resources and to make them available as widely as possible. The platform will be further expanded and updated over time to provide the most effective and accessible service for users and customers.”

David Clark, for the nearly five years the managing director of Oxford Academic, is quoted, saying, “Scholarly publishing is becoming increasingly digital and this migration is an important step in realizing our potential as a digital-first publisher.

“By implementing new digital tools to access and share research faster, we’re increasing our reach as a publisher … I look forward to seeing the impact of the new Oxford Academic platform for authors, librarians and, of course, readers.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG notes this item would be deemed not newsworthy anywhere except in academic publishing.

The lasting anguish of moral injury

From Knowable:

On a Sunday evening in September 1994, David Peters drove to a church service in Beckley, West Virginia, as the sun set over the horizon. He was 19 years old, just back from Marine Corps boot camp. He hadn’t been behind the wheel of a car all summer.

The road curved, and Peters misjudged the turn. Rays from the dipping sun blinded him. The car hit the median and headed straight at an oncoming motorcycle. And then, Peters says, “Everything went crash.”

His friend, sitting in the passenger seat, seemed fine. Peters got out of the car. The driver of the motorcycle was alive, but the woman who’d been riding behind him was now laid out on the pavement. Peters quickly realized she was dead.

Now an Episcopal priest in Pflugerville, Texas, outside Austin, Peters says there have been periods during the last 28 years when he’s found the knowledge that he killed someone almost unbearable. “I felt like I wasn’t good anymore,” he says. At times, he even wished he were dead. Years after the accident, he purchased a motorcycle, thinking “that’d be sort of justice if I died on a motorcycle.” 

Peters may have experienced what some psychologists and researchers have begun to call “moral injury,” a concept introduced by a psychiatrist to describe the devastation he witnessed in Vietnam War veterans and others who believed they’d been ordered to act in ways that violated their personal moral code. The term encompasses a constellation of signs and symptoms that go beyond mere guilt and shame and can be so severe that people lose a sense of their own goodness and trustworthiness, leading to drastic impacts on daily functioning and quality of life. 

Moral injury results from “the way that humans make meaning out of the violence that they have either experienced or that they have inflicted,” says Janet McIntosh, an anthropologist at Brandeis University who wrote about the psychic wounds resulting from how we use language when talking about war in the 2021 Annual Review of Anthropology

Although research on moral injury began with the experiences of veterans and active-duty military, it has expanded in recent years to include civilians. The pandemic — with its heavy moral burdens on health care workers and its fraught decisions over gathering in groups, masking and vaccinating — intensified scientific interest in how widespread moral injury might be. “What’s innovative about moral injury is its recognition that our ethical foundations are essential to our sense of self, to our society, to others, to our professions,” says Daniel Rothenberg, who codirects the Center on the Future of War at Arizona State University.

. . . .

Moral injury was first described by Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist in Boston, who defined it as a sense of “betrayal of what’s right, by someone who holds legitimate authority (in the military — a leader), in a high-stakes situation.” In his 1994 book, Achilles in Vietnam, Shay quotes a soldier whose platoon fired on people at the beach one night, having been told by commanders that their targets were unloading weapons. But when daylight came, the soldiers realized they’d killed a bunch of fishermen and their children. “So it starts working on your head,” the soldier told Shay. “So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was OK.” Incidents like this, Shay argued, are not just upsetting, but also damaging.

As the years passed, some researchers felt that Shay’s definition focused too narrowly on betrayal by leaders or country. In 2009, Litz and colleagues expanded the definition to include more personal types of moral injury, such as the lasting impact of “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” 

In a 2019 study, researchers devised a list of potentially morally injurious events to civilians by reviewing previous literature and research, as well as consulting experts and people who suffered from memories of morally distressing events. The researchers came up with 31 events that seemed to distress people enough to lead to moral injury, including a car accident while texting, sexual assault, working within a corrupt organization, witnessing abuse of power at work, cheating on a romantic partner and stopping providing for dependent children. But not everyone reacts to troubling events in the same way, and not everyone who experiences a particular event will suffer a moral injury, says study coauthor Matt Gray, a clinical psychologist at the University of Wyoming. What really makes a difference, he says, is “people’s moral framework and their appraisal of their actions or inactions.”

Because such actions and encounters can be traumatic, people with moral injury may appear to have post-traumatic stress disorder. But a diagnosis of PTSD does not capture the entirety of this kind of suffering, Shay and therapists who came after have found.

. . . .

Many researchers view PTSD and moral injury as distinct conditions, although they overlap in their symptoms and the types of events that trigger them. PTSD is characterized by anxiety that develops after a serious physical threat of injury, sexual violence or death. But that triggering event doesn’t necessarily have to be morally injurious — it could be a natural disaster, say. For moral injury, on the other hand, the triggering event is always morally injurious but it may or may not involve a physical threat; it could be something like causing financial distress to others due to a gambling addiction.

Both conditions can involve intrusive memories of the traumatic event, avoidance of reminders of the event, lack of interest in pleasurable activities and detachment from others, Litz and colleagues wrote recently in Frontiers in Psychiatry  (some researchers have categorized the overlapping symptoms differently). But moral injury is more likely to lead to other symptoms, Litz says, including alterations in self-perception, loss of meaning and loss of religious faith. 

The two conditions may have different effects on the brain. In a 2016 study, active-duty military personnel seeking trauma treatment were asked to lie in a darkened room with their eyes closed for 30 minutes, after which they underwent a brain scan. Those who had been traumatized by a physical threat exhibited elevated resting neuronal activity in their right amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional responses, particularly fear. But those who were haunted by something they did or witnessed had more activity in their left precuneus, a part of the brain that is related to sense of self.

. . . .

Over time, the moral injury research lens has expanded to include nonmilitary populations such as police officers, teachers, refugees and journalists. One 2019 study, for instance, surveyed teachers and other K-12 professionals in an urban Midwest school district, where some schools were white and affluent, some were racially and economically mixed, and others were largely made up of impoverished students of color. The less affluent and the more segregated the students, the more likely the teachers were to experience moral injury, writes the study’s author, Erin Sugrue, a social worker at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. “Professionals in these schools may experience moral injury as they come into close contact with the impact of racism and income inequality, two inherently immoral social forces, on the daily lives of their students.” 

During the pandemic, researchers have turned their focus to the medical front lines. One recent study led by Jason Nieuwsma, a clinical psychologist at Duke University School of Medicine, analyzed data from a March 2021 survey of health care workers. They reported potentially morally injurious experiences that included hospital policies that prohibited dying patients from receiving visitors, watching some people refuse to wear masks to protect those who were more vulnerable, and being too overworked to provide optimal care. One wrote: “My line in the sand was treating patients in wheelchairs outside in the ambulance bay in the cold fall night. I got blankets and food for people outside with IV fluid running. I was ashamed of the care we were providing.”

. . . .

Roughly half of the health care workers reported they were troubled by witnessing others’ immoral acts, and just under a fifth (18.2 percent) reported that they were troubled by having acted in ways that violated their own morals and values. “It begs the question of whether that experience will persist over time,” Nieuwsma says. “It’s something health care systems need to pay attention to.”

. . . .

To distinguish between normal moral stress and abnormal distress at levels that may require therapeutic intervention, Litz and Patricia Kerig, a clinical psychologist at the University of Utah, propose a moral continuum. At one end is the kind of moral frustration one might experience over an upcoming local or national election, events that are not immediately personal. Then there are more distressing events involving a personal, moral transgression (like if you behave hurtfully to someone you love or steal someone else’s idea). A person may lose sleep over such issues, but they are not disabling and do not define the person in question. At the far end of the spectrum is the type of debilitating moral injury that consumes a person with intense guilt or shame.

Link to the rest at Knowable

Not precisely what PG usually posts about, but he found this article fascinating. It also reminded him of some interesting characters in literature. Crime and Punishment and Heart of Darkness are two books which, for PG, include such characters.

Henry Kissinger explains what he thinks makes great leadership

From The Economist

Leadership by Henry Kissinger

Whatever you think of Henry Kissinger, the 99-year-old former national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations has an elephantine memory and experience that makes it an important historical resource. In his latest book, Mr Kissinger, an unofficial adviser and friend to many presidents and prime ministers, considers how six leaders from the second half of the 20th century reoriented their countries and made a lasting impact on the world.

Mr Kissinger’s six are an eclectic bunch. Konrad Adenauer was the first post-war chancellor of West Germany. Charles de Gaulle saved France twice, first during the second world war, then at the time of the Algerian crisis. The author’s old boss, Richard Nixon, shook geopolitics with his opening to China before scandal brought him down. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for forging a lasting peace with Israel as Egypt’s president. Lee Kuan Yew made tiny Singapore one of the most prosperous places on Earth. And Margaret Thatcher reversed decades of British decline—while widening social and economic divisions—before being defenestrated by her party.

A project of this kind might have amounted to a series of brief eulogistic biographies of famous people. Much of the book will indeed be familiar to many readers—and at times the author’s willingness to glide over inconvenient truths is distasteful. He justifies Nixon’s covert bombing of Cambodia by the need to force the Vietnamese to negotiate. One of its consequences, the rise of the Khmers Rouges, merits a single sentence, which blames Congress for cutting off military aid to the Cambodian government. (Watergate, too, is downplayed.) De Gaulle’s extraordinary refusal to give credit to allies fighting and dying to liberate France nearly earns admiration. The controversy in which Thatcher almost revelled escapes all criticism.

The book is redeemed, and more, by the analytical framework in which each leader is examined, and by the author’s personal knowledge of his subjects. Moreover, the writing is always crisp and lucid, even when conveying arcane theories of international relations, such as the notion of “equilibrium” that defined Nixon’s foreign policy (and, by extension, Mr Kissinger’s).

Having seen so many leaders at close hand, Mr Kissinger understands the constraints they must acknowledge and bypass. Among these are “scarcity”, or the limits of their societies in terms of demography and economic heft; “temporality”, or the prevailing values, habits and attitudes of their times; “competition” from other states that have their own goals; and the “fluidity” of events, the pace of which can force decisions to be made on the basis of intuition and hypothesis. Leaders must traverse a tightrope from which they fall if they are either too timid or too bold.

In Mr Kissinger’s view, there are essentially two types of leader, the statesman and the prophet. Statesmen manipulate circumstances to their advantage, temper vision with wariness and work with the grain of societies until existing institutions need to be changed or confronted. Prophets are prepared, if not eager, to break with the past no matter the risk.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that when Nixon resigned in 1974, he was one of the most reviled individuals in the United States, primarily to his conduct of the War in Vietnam. Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson would have run as a close second to Nixon on the scale of reviled presidents.

When one reviews the mediocrities who were elected to the presidency during the latter part of the 19th Century, it is interesting that none were as reviled during or after their terms of office than Nixon was.

The Wine-Dark Sea Within

From The Wall Street Journal:

The Greek physician Galen died in A.D. 216; his anatomic teachings went largely unopposed until the Renaissance. Even then, those who challenged them could be in for trouble. The brilliant anatomist Andreas Vesalius, to atone for crimes against orthodoxy, was forced to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and perished on the island of Zakynthos when his ship foundered. The Spanish physician Michael Servetus suffered a worse fate. A critic of both Galen’s anatomy and John Calvin’s theology, he was arrested in Geneva and burned alive, his books bound to his arms.

Today, every middle-schooler knows that blue blood in the veins travels to the right side of the heart and is pumped to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen and turns bright red. It then goes to the left side of the heart and is pumped into a series of progressively smaller arteries, finally traversing tiny capillaries, disgorging its oxygen and returning to the veins.

This account of the circulation of the blood took over two millennia to develop, and required demolishing dogmas that blocked the advance of science for centuries. In “The Wine-Dark Sea Within,” this process becomes a saga of heroism, villainy and high intellectual adventure, told with great eloquence and verve by Dhun Sethna, a practicing cardiologist.

Several Greeks before Galen had influential, if largely mistaken, notions regarding the circulation. Alcmaeon believed blood ebbed and flowed, instead of coursing in a circle. Praxagoras realized that the veins and arteries were separate systems, but thought the arteries carried air, not blood. This misconception may have arisen from dissections on animals that had been strangled, which led to engorged veins and underfilled arteries.

Aristotle famously blundered by asserting that the heart had three chambers, instead of four. He did, however, identify and name the aorta, the major artery that carries the outflow from the left side of the heart, and distinguished it from the vena cava. According to Aristotle, body heat was produced in the heart, which contained a sort of living fire. Aging resulted from the gradual running down of the body’s heat. Aristotle failed to see that the heart was a muscular pump. In his scheme, the motion of the heart was driven by the simmering of blood in its chambers, which made it expand.

In Galen’s model, there were two circulations. Veins arose from the liver and carried nutrition through the body, while arteries arose from the heart and carried air (pneuma), blood and heat. While these circulations were largely separate, a small amount of blood from the liver passed from the right side of the heart to the left through pores. During the Middle Ages, according to Dr. Sethna, “the proper study of the human body was a study of Galen and not the body itself . . . the tyranny of Galen, who enjoyed an almost divine authority, presented the most significant obstacle to progress in medicine.” It is unclear why Galen enjoyed such immense importance. Perhaps the durability of his dogmas was simply due to the chance survival of his voluminous writings.

The first blow to the hegemony of Galen came from Vesalius, a Flemish physician of vast energy. As a medical student, he was notorious for filching bones from cemeteries for study. As a professor, he raised eyebrows by performing dissections himself, instead of delegating the work to illiterate barber-surgeons, as was customary. Vesalius, to his dismay, found that much of Galen’s anatomy was based on animal, rather than human, dissections. He pointed out Galenic misconceptions about the anatomy of the skeleton, liver, bile ducts and uterus. Moreover, he found no trace of the pores that Galen had asserted were in the septum, the muscular wall separating the two sides of the heart.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

When did cheerfulness get so miserable?

From The Spectator:

We’ve all met the sort of facetious oaf who orders any non-giggling woman to ‘Cheer up, love, it might never happen’. As Timothy Hampton grasps, enforced cheeriness feels about as much fun as compulsory games. His invigorating book about the quest for true cheerfulness in literature and philosophy dismantles the various ‘prosthetic or counterfeit’ versions of the real thing that bullies, bosses, self-help gurus and household tyrants inflict on their victims. Jane Austen’s heroines, as he shows, chafe against the elevation of cheerfulness into a ‘social norm’. It suffocates them like stays: ‘Thou shalt be cheerful, at least if thou art woman.’

For sound reasons, the prospect of cheerfulness fails to gladden many modern hearts. When that epic grouch Theodor Adorno asked ‘Is Art Cheerful?’, his answer was no surprise. In Adorno’s stricken 20th century, ‘any gaiety in art’ implied ‘an avoidance of the pain of history’. Good cheer had withered into a fake fix peddled by self-improvement merchants, ‘an affective tool that can reconcile you to drudgery’ – or even a breakfast cereal with, aptly, a hole in the middle (General Mills launched Cheerios in 1941).

So Hampton, a professor of literature at Berkeley, has serious work to do when he sets out to rescue the legacy of cheerfulness from beaming charlatans and genial thugs. His study spans more than half a millennium of literary, philosophical and theological examples, from Julian of Norwich to Scott Fitzgerald, with a closing tribute to the genius who redeemed cheerfulness from kitsch: Louis Armstrong.

This isn’t a study of grander conditions such as hope, optimism or even happiness. Neither is it just a gloss on Stoic notions of equilibrium (euthymia and tranquillitas), though good cheer might stem from a well-balanced life. Hampton quotes Spinoza: ‘Cheerfulness cannot be excessive; it is always good.’ But the very fact that it ‘lives on the edge of… more intense emotions’ may make it invisible. Besides, the intellectual smart money has always invested in its perennially on-trend antitheses: melancholy, accidie, despair, ennuiWeltschmerz and their tribe of glum kin.

Metaphysicians and visionaries distrust cheerfulness as a transient, superficial quality – neither grounded in a stable state nor a key to transforming change. Exactly so: that’s what makes it valuable. It ‘bridges and mediates’ between interior and exterior selves. Its power works from the outside in. Forget your ‘essential’ nature or disposition. As Madame de Staël wrote: ‘What one does to please others ends up shaping what one feels oneself.’ This ‘performative’ aspect of cheerfulness Hampton reads not as a taint but a blessing. No one need be innately cheerful. Act it and you become it.

Its meaning, though, has evolved across time. Hampton tracks a conceptual journey from the outward demeanour of the Middle Ages – the face you showed the world – through Renaissance ‘rituals of hospitality’ to the cheerful philosophies of Montaigne, Hume and Nietzsche. By Calvin’s time, he explains, injunctions to good cheer could have a coercive edge; demands to see a happy face became a ‘policing tool’. In contrast, Montaigne in his Essays pursued ‘gay and social wisdom’ as a cautious sceptic who cultivated private freedom in a violent world: ‘He brings his own bridle to the paddock.’ David Hume praised its ‘contagious’ force: a cheerful guest will light up a roomful of grumps. But Hampton sees the clubbable cheer of the Enlightenment as a social glue for privileged groups, ‘clearly and firmly in their own element’ – or else a behavioural straitjacket for restive women in Austen’s age.

Link to the rest at The Spectator

Children’s Nonfiction Has an Image Problem

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s no secret that many adults enjoy reading nonfiction, and as a result, in the adult publishing world, fiction and nonfiction are respected equally. Major book awards routinely include separate categories for fiction and nonfiction, as have the New York Times bestsellers lists since their inception in 1931.

But as Cynthia Levison, Jennifer Swanson, and I wrote in PW last year, nonfiction for kids has an image problem—at home, at school, and in the media. Despite a robust body of research showing that many children prefer nonfiction, and many more enjoy fiction and nonfiction equally, most adults mistakenly believe children prefer made-up stories.

As a result, well-intended parents favor fiction for bedtime reading, and most teachers automatically choose made-up stories for read alouds and book talks as well as science and social studies lessons. A 2015 study published in Teaching Informational Text in K-3 Classrooms found that only 17–22% of titles in elementary classroom libraries were nonfiction. This sends a powerful message to children—that nonfiction isn’t as valid and valuable as fiction, that it’s not meant for everyday enjoyment.

“Children want their nonfiction books; adults may be their barriers,” says Heather Simpson, chief program officer for Room to Read, a global nonprofit organization focused on improving literacy and gender equality in education. “A child learning how to read with fiction texts alone misses a unique opportunity to pique an independent interest in reading.”

A deeper dive into adults’ biased attitude toward nonfiction for children shows that the problem is especially egregious for books that explain STEM concepts.

. . . .

As a science writer who has published more than 200 nonfiction books for children since 1998, I’ve witnessed the exciting evolution of these books firsthand, and I’ve grappled with the bias against them—including my own.

During school visits, children frequently ask me if I’ll ever write fiction. Early in my career, I gave the same answer every single time: “Maybe, I just need to find the right story.”

I don’t know if that answer satisfied the students, but it certainly didn’t satisfy me because it was a lie. In my professional life, I was surrounded by a community of people who prized stories and storytelling, and, for a long time, I thought I should too.

I remember praising the innovative format of a particular picture book biography during a presentation at a writing conference in Texas. Later, a friend kindly pointed out that, to her, the characters in that book seemed a bit wooden.

Not long after that, while serving on a book award committee, a fellow judge campaigned for her favorite title by asking, “Didn’t it bring a little tear to your eye at the end?” One of the other judges, agreed that it had. But I didn’t answer. I was embarrassed and ashamed that I didn’t share their emotional connection to the book.

These comments, and others like them from authors, editors, and educators I respect, gradually made me realize that I don’t experience stories in the same way as my colleagues. I felt like an

But then in 2014, I was doing a week-long residency at a small school in Maine. By the last day, I was really getting to know the students, and I felt comfortable with them. So when a fourth grader asked the question, I finally decided to be honest.

I asked the group: “How many of you like to write fiction?” Many hands went up, as I knew they would. Then I took a deep breath and said, “I know lots of writers who love to create characters and invent imaginary worlds. But for me, the real world is so amazing, so fascinating that I just want to learn as much as I can about it and share it with other people. That’s why I write nonfiction.”

And then something astonishing happened. A boy in the back row—a child none of the teachers expected to participate—lifted his arm, extended his pinky and his thumb, and enthusiastically rocked his hand back and forth. Because he wanted me to know what he was thinking without interrupting, he was using a nonverbal hand gesture popular in many U.S. schools.

“Me too,” he was saying. “I agree.” A moment later, a half dozen other students joined him.

I had validated their way of thinking, their experience in the world, and they were validating me right back. It was a powerful moment.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Wittgenstein at war

From The New Statesman:

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) appears to be the only major work of philosophy to have been composed while the author was an active military combatant. René Descartes was serving in the Thirty Years War as a volunteer with the Dutch and then Bavarian armies when he first developed his philosophical ideas, but we don’t know whether he saw combat. Wittgenstein enlisted as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian army on 7 August 1914, about a week after the outbreak of the First World War. He was 25. From the start of the conflict he was intent on continuing the work on logic and philosophy that had occupied him for the past few years, growing out of his collaboration with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. It held him together under outward circumstances that he found hard to bear.

People are fascinated by the hidden lives of creative geniuses, the more sordid the better. Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, 1914-1916 appeals to that interest by allowing the reader to eavesdrop on his agonised emotional life in two of those years of military service, during which he produced one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. The Tractatus is a founding document of the analytic tradition in philosophy. It set out a theory of logic, language and the limits of meaning which revealed, Wittgenstein argued, that traditional philosophical problems were based on linguistic confusion. The two tracks of his life – the emotional and the intellectual – can be followed in some notebooks Wittgenstein kept during that period. On the right-hand pages he entered his philosophical thoughts, in legible German. On the left-hand pages, in code, he entered his personal feelings – hopes, fears, prayers, despair, loathing of himself and other people, and gratitude when he was able to work.

Some of the notebooks were either lost or destroyed by Wittgenstein, but three from 1914-16 survive because they were left in his sister’s house in Vienna. After her brother’s death in 1951 she made them available to his literary executors, who in 1961 published the right hand pages (the philosophical material) as Notebooks 1914-16. The left-hand pages were not mentioned. They have since been deciphered (the code is a simple inversion of the alphabet: a=z, b=y… z=a),  and there was an unauthorised publication of those pages in 1991, but this book is the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s private remarks.

Wittgenstein had been dead for only ten years when the philosophical notebooks were published, and it is hardly surprising that the literary executors, who were his close friends, omitted the personal material: they knew he would be appalled at its coming to light. And though he has been dead for 70 years, it still feels intrusive to read these monotonously repetitive and self-absorbed effusions. As Marjorie Perloff, the distinguished American literary scholar who has translated the notebooks, observes, Wittgenstein’s project was himself – self-creation and self-maintenance in a form that he would be able to bear. He isn’t interested in the war or the people he encounters, only in his own responses and feelings, and overcoming their inadequacy.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman

Yes to the City

From The Wall Street Journal:

At its best, capitalism provides a cornucopia of products affordable to ordinary people. But when it comes to housing, the American economy is failing to deliver the goods. By one leading measure, housing prices in April 2022 were 15% higher, corrected for inflation, than their previous peak in 2006.

The free market has failed to deliver affordable housing to Americans because of government restrictions on supply. In those parts of the country, like Houston, where building activity is lightly regulated, prices remain low despite enormous demand. In other areas, including Boston and San Francisco, new developments are constrained by a thicket of building regulations supported by entrenched local interests—often referred to collectively as Nimby, or Not in My Backyard. Any new demand thus inexorably leads to higher home prices.

Artificial restrictions on housing supply have enriched older homeowners while limiting home ownership among the young. In turn, American GDP suffers, because our most productive regions, such as Silicon Valley, make it impossible to build, forcing people to move instead to less productive, lower-cost locales.

Setting housing markets free, however, would require more than the election of a pro-growth president or governor; there need to be countless smaller victories at the local, city-council and town-planning levels. Now there is Yimby—or Yes in My Back Yard—a pro-growth movement that may be our best hope for making coastal America more affordable.

Max Holleran’s “Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing,” focuses on the fascinating conflict between Yimbys and some more-progressive groups, including old-line environmentalists and community activists, such as the protesters who stormed the 2018 YIMBY town conference in Boston with their yellow shirts, drums, kazoos, vuvuzelas and “giant signs decrying displacement.”

Antigrowth advocates have long depicted developers as greedy destroyers of neighborhoods. Often forgotten is Adam Smith’s wise dictum that “it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” The Yimbys, Mr. Holleran tells us, “successfully reframed urban growth as a progressive goal for creating more equitable and sustainable cities.” The battle is no longer between wealthy developers and the little guys in the neighborhood, but the little-guy renters who are kept out of the market by wealthy boomers.

In one example, Mr. Holleran describes how, beginning in the 1950s, a “group of college professors, concerned citizens, and activists with links to the League of Women Voters” came together in Boulder, Colo., to work toward “a municipal ‘land bank’ of undevelopable property surrounding the city.” These citizens “were devoted to creating an environmental paradise,” Mr. Holleran tells us, but the “protective greenbelt” also created a de facto barrier to the city, inside of which growth was severely regulated. Meanwhile, outside the greenbelt there emerged “an endless stretch of unimaginative suburban homes on cul-de-sacs, connected by highways and strip malls, dotted with box stores.”

That greenbelt has since helped drive Boulder’s average home sales above $850,000 in the first quarter of 2022. Its environmental impact has surely also been negative, as it increases commuter distances—and hence carbon emissions—for those living outside of it and must travel into the city by car.

Boulder’s high housing prices and progressive politics made the city an ideal opportunity for the Yimbys, while the region’s house-rich environmentalists did not garner much sympathy. And so in 2015 the Yimbys easily defeated a ballot referendum that sought to give Boulder neighborhoods “veto power over land use.” It was, Mr. Holleran tells us, “a tremendous win for Yimbys in a city where voting on development mostly goes the other way.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that there are still vast portions of the United States that feature land with very few inhabitants. Ironically, the population of many parts of rural America has been and is in long-term decline. The US equivalent of Britain’s country villages is crumbling in a great many places.

PG understands the economic and social forces causing people to leave rural areas and move to urban areas are an example of individuals making decisions in their own economic best interests, but in a nation filled with high-speed internet connections, he has yet to see very many large commercial enterprises decide to give up on offices that place employees into close physical proximity with each other. Even if the downtown core of a major city goes into decline, one or more nearby suburban areas start sprouting high-rise offices or suburban campuses where employees are expected to show up on a regular basis.

The COVID lockdowns in the US started a significant portion of the working population who had worked in office environments to begin working from home offices. Based upon what PG has read, now that COVID has declined, a lot of bosses have decided they want to have the worker bees concentrated in one place where face-to-face management may be conducted. A larger number of worker bees than expected have said they’re not going to do so.

PG suggests there is an age factor also at work. When he was young, PG enjoyed living in and visiting large cities quite a lot. Now, not so much. High-rises don’t make his heart go pitty-pat anymore.

One of the nice perks of being a successful indie author is that you can live and work in a place you enjoy being. You walk to work and Amazon doesn’t require you to ever show up at its offices.

Elsevier’s ‘Confidence in Research’ Project: Trust Deficit

From Publishing Perspectives:

Even as many in the world’s public-health community keep ratcheting up the alarm about the high transmissibility of the BA.5 variant of the coronavirus COVID-19, the problems of a mistrust in science are everywhere: Bare, unmasked faces fill crowded indoor settings; numbers on vaccinations and booster shots lag behind where they should be; lame excuses about “COVID fatigue” are never far behind if you point out to someone that the pandemic isn’t over.

. . . .

The basis for mistrust may go much farther than issues of diversity in the research ranks, too. During pandemic-era assaults on science by political personalities–and widespread disinformation on social-media channels–one of the virus’ major revelations has been just how science-averse many people are, with varying degrees of intensity from one international book market to the next. From Novak Djokovic’s deportation from Australia to the current reticence of many parents to allow young children to be vaccinated, even with full official approval, the

In “Why We Must Rebuild Trust in Science” at Pew Research in February, Sudlip Parikh wrote, “The COVID-19 pandemic will not be the last time that science will be essential to society’s triumph over existential threats. Addressing future public health concerns, such as climate change, food and water insecurity, and other challenges—some of which are yet to emerge—will require the long-term integration of science into policymaking in ways that have only been temporary in the past.”

Trust, Parikh write, is “absolutely critical to the success of our mission to improve the human condition.” And on Monday (July 11), the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a new paper from three researchers at Ohio State examining “Why Are People Anti-Science, and What Can We Do About It?”

. . . .

This is the real debate behind the Amsterdam-based Elsevier’s “Confidence in Research” program, announced today (July 13) by the publisher, a collaboration with the UK’s Economist Impact.  What the project’s work does is look at the internal element of this debate–the way researchers themselves see the field, their work in it, and  the deficiencies that might limit trust.

Elsevier Research’s announcement today says that the project is to be focused on two questions:

  • What should change before the next crisis, the next pandemic? How should our experience with COVID inform future communications around science?
  • How has the pandemic affected the academic research community?

. . . .

In a prepared statement, Anne Kitson, senior vice-president and managing director of Cell Press and The Lancet, is quoted, saying, “This work builds on our long-standing collaboration with Elsevier to support initiatives that improve understanding of research quality and accessible findings.

“If researchers have questions about the reliability of research on which to build, then these are also questions for the public and how we more broadly place confidence in findings.

“We are looking to this initiative to provide more of an evidence base on which initiatives can be developed and benchmarked.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

From The American Bar Association:

There is always a political element to public health decisions or, more broadly, public policy decisions that draw on science. Such decisions involve not only scientific data but also debates about how to allocate resources—and resources are always limited—and how to balance different values. But real problems arise when the decisions are not based on a shared factual foundation, or when the science used to describe and assess the situation is politicized. Such politicization of the science around vaccines, for example, can lead to decisions that directly increase the rates and harms of diseases, with potentially deadly consequences.

The handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States was politicized relatively early, which made responding to the pandemic challenging. Politicization was not, of course, the only issue. The tricky nature of the infection, which can be transmitted before or without symptoms, public health messaging failures or errors, and previous underfunding of public health infrastructure all contributed to the United States’ failed response—resulting in the United States having a disproportionately high rate of both COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to other countries. But politicization had a role. For example, there is evidence that the Trump administration, concerned about the political impacts of the pandemic, put pressure on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to change not only the guidance it provided but also the scientific reports used by public health officials and other policymakers to make decisions. There is, again, an appropriate role for politics in making decisions in a pandemic situation. But manipulating the scientific evidence on which decisions are made can undermine the ability of politicians of all orientations to make decisions that match values.

. . . .

Traditionally, vaccines have not been a partisan issue. In the 1960s and 1970s, all states—with a variety of political views—adopted school immunization requirements for a variety of diseases. In the early 2000s, both left-leaning California and right-leaning Texas offered very easy-to-get exemptions from those school mandates. At the other extreme, left-leaning New York used a relatively hard-to-get religious exemption, and West Virginia never offered a non-medical exemption, while Mississippi’s religious exemption was struck down by its Supreme Court in 1979 and never revived. 

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to protect the vaccine supply by creating a no-fault program that provided limited liability protections to vaccine manufacturers—though with reservations. The bill was supported by other members of his administration (though opposed by civil servants in the Department of Justice) after being drafted by a Democrat chair of a congressional committee.

. . . .

In the past few years, struggles around vaccine mandates have become politicized. In many states—including Maine, California, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York—votes on laws regarding school vaccine mandates were along party lines. School vaccine mandates are not just about science; they involve a discussion of values and address views about the balance of parental rights with public health. But the discussion in legislatures often drew on conflicting views of the science. More often than not, opponents of bills aiming to change mandates (not all from one party) echoed or repeated misleading claims made by the anti-vaccine movement. For example, speaking about a bill that would have required doctors to give parents seeking to vaccinate the CDC’s excipient list, Republican Senator Bob Hall from Texas expressed inaccurate statements about vaccines ingredients, for example alleging vaccines contain “fetal parts” and expressing concerns about aluminum in vaccines. The first comment refers, inaccurately, to the fact that a small number of vaccines use viruses grown on cells descended—at long remove—from fetal cells deriving from abortions performed in the 1960s. The remoteness convinces even the most of pro-life commenters that using these vaccines to prevent harm is morally permissible and does not create complicity with abortions. But that is not how anti-vaccine groups present it, including to supporting legislators. As to aluminum, many vaccines contain tiny amounts of aluminum salts to help the vaccine work better—but extensive data supports the experts’ consensus that these tiny amounts of aluminum salts, far smaller than what we are exposed to through food, are not a danger.

In these cases, it is hard not to see the position as the result of misinformation legislators were provided by the anti-vaccine movement rather than a value choice. School mandates work; they reduce rates of outbreaks in the state. When legislators are led to weaken them because of anti-vaccine claims, they may be inadvertently causing direct harm to their constituents—without intending to.

Link to the rest at The American Bar Association

PG notes that politicized science is virtually always a threat to the quality of scientific research and the recommendations that politically-appointed professionals and politicians provide with respect to preventative activities or treatments are sometimes difficult to isolate from the influence of powerful non-scientific interests.

The Danger of Complacency in the Book Busines

From Publishers Weekly:

In the 1953 movie Shane, there is a clear contrast between good and evil, the hard-working farm families and the greedy cattlemen who own the political power and are willing to employ violent means to get their way. The farmers aren’t really prepared for such a battle, but Shane, the mysterious man from the mountains, reluctantly meets violence with violence and wins the day for the good guys.

How does this relate to writers and publishers? The bad guys are seizing power and imposing their distortions of good and evil on creativity and informative thought with the power of book banning and censorship in schools. It’s a not-so-subtle form of violence.

The writers and thinkers, the publishers and agents? They are not gunslingers. Most writers and teachers—despite the insane proposal to arm teachers in rooms full of adolescents and young children—are not people who spend hours conniving, distorting, and threatening anyone who is not of like mind.

Make no mistake. There are writers who have come from police work à la Joe Wambaugh, and writers like Hemingway who enjoyed physical confrontations and challenges, as well as those who are hunters and even gun enthusiasts, but farming, like writing, is an all-consuming activity. Novelists spend most of their time alone with their characters and thoughts. Most depend on Shane to, in the end, protect and save them.

It’s not that we don’t want to get our hands dirty or we lack the courage; it’s that these new threats have all come in a storm of surprise. Many of us are so entranced with our own work that we don’t look out the window, much less keep up with the drumbeat of depressing and dangerous news. Libraries fighting for survival seems almost like science fiction.

But what if we pull up the shades and/or turn on the news anyway? Who is Shane for the publishing world?

He’s the politician who will stand up and challenge the book burners and would-be censors, the governor who remembers being excited by his teacher who presented a thrilling new idea. These are men and women with Shane-like courage, and we writers, publishers, and agents are looking toward the mountain, hoping they’ll arrive and save the day. Some of us are even eating popcorn and waiting for the movie to start. This is dangerous.

When America was developing—well into the last portion of the 20th century—it was moving in the direction of the farmers. Censorship and book banning was consistently challenged and defeated. You could cite such cases as Tinker v. Des Moines School District, which ruled that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Check the decisions in Todd v. Rochester Community Schools in 1972, or Rosenberg v. Board of Education, which upheld the right to read The Merchant of Venice and Oliver Twist. We all grew complacent disbelieving they could come back. We came too far, surely, to turn back.

But the bad guys have returned. Is there any doubt that they’ll be after Huckleberry Finn again, especially with this anti-critical-race-theory nonsense? When Huck decides to help Jim escape slavery and says, “Aw right, I’ll go to hell,” he really believes it. It makes him the most courageous American hero, and we can lose him and the lessons in an instant. Yet right now, Shane has not come out of the mountains.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG notes, as he has before, that he doesn’t necessarily agree with every item he excerpts in TPV. He also cautions against “the good old days” view of history. There are some things that are very much better about 2022 than there were in 1962, 72, 82 and 92.

The Declaration of Independence

In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.


Georgia

  • Button Gwinnett
  • Lyman Hall
  • George Walton

North Carolina

  • William Hooper
  • Joseph Hewes
  • John Penn

South Carolina

  • Edward Rutledge
  • Thomas Heyward, Jr.
  • Thomas Lynch, Jr.
  • Arthur Middleton

Massachusetts

  • John Hancock

Maryland

  • Samuel Chase
  • William Paca
  • Thomas Stone
  • Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia

  • George Wythe
  • Richard Henry Lee
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Benjamin Harrison
  • Thomas Nelson, Jr.
  • Francis Lightfoot Lee
  • Carter Braxton

Pennsylvania

  • Robert Morris
  • Benjamin Rush
  • Benjamin Franklin
  • John Morton
  • George Clymer
  • James Smith
  • George Taylor
  • James Wilson
  • George Ross

Delaware

  • Caesar Rodney
  • George Read
  • Thomas McKean

New York

  • William Floyd
  • Philip Livingston
  • Francis Lewis
  • Lewis Morris

New Jersey

  • Richard Stockton
  • John Witherspoon
  • Francis Hopkinson
  • John Hart
  • Abraham Clark

New Hampshire

  • Josiah Bartlett
  • William Whipple

Massachusetts

  • Samuel Adams
  • John Adams
  • Robert Treat Paine
  • Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island

  • Stephen Hopkins
  • William Ellery

Connecticut

  • Roger Sherman
  • Samuel Huntington
  • William Williams
  • Oliver Wolcott

New Hampshire

  • Matthew Thornton

From The National Archives

How hot-girl books became must-have fashion accessories

From I-D:

[B]ooks are markers of taste and self-expression. Picking which books to go on your shelf – or Insta story – is akin to picking out what to wear. TikTok, Instagram and Goodreads are full of ‘hot-girl book’ lists, but when exactly did reading become such a hot pastime? Noughties romcoms would have you believe that being cool and reading books are mutually exclusive, with the hot popular kids teasing the ones who spent lunch breaks with their noses between pages. The tables have since turned, however, with books becoming yet another means to present our most curated selves online through the culture we consume. Ergo, if you read ‘hot-girl books’ then you must be hot.

On the runway, designers are interpreting this trend through a sartorial lens. In recent seasons, we’ve seen fashion’s bibliophiles turn to both classic and contemporary literature for inspiration. Ottessa Moshfegh took up the mantle of fashion’s favourite novelist for AW22, making her runway debut at Maryam Nassir Zadeh’s NYFW show as well as writing a short story to accompany the show notes at Proenza Schouler. Meanwhile, Jonathan Anderson’s AW22 Loewe show featured a voiceover reciting Sylvia Plath’s poem Fever 103°. For SS22, the designer released three JW Anderson capsules inspired by the quote, “the secret of life is in art,” from one of literature’s fashion luminaries, Oscar Wilde.

Bookworm Kim Jones is no stranger to introducing literary codes to collections at both Fendi and Dior. For Dior Men AW22, he looked to Jack Kerouac’s beat classic On The Road, unfurling the original transcript along the runway with the stamp of approval from Kerouac’s estate. Previously, the creative director drew from Virginia Woolf for Fendi Couture SS21 in a collection inspired by school trips to Charleston Farmhouse, a beloved retreat of the Bloomsbury Set of which Woolf was a part. Elsewhere, Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli enlisted 17 renowned authors — including André Aciman, Leïla Slimani and Emily Ratajkowski — to create campaign layouts featuring their writing; and thirsty Parisian menswear label Louis Gabriel Nouchi has named each of his collections after a seminal French novel. To put it simply, literary interests have never been so in. Books tell us where we are, where we were and where we’ll be, so it’s no surprise they serve as an endless pool of inspiration for the fashion world.

Link to the rest at I-D

PG reminds one and all that he doesn’t necessarily agree with everything he posts on TPV.

The Norwegian library with unreadable books

From The BBC:

One recent Sunday morning, in a forest north of Oslo in Norway, more than 200 people gathered to watch a ceremony. They had walked in a procession ­– some with their dogs, others their children – along gravel trails, directed by arrows on the ground made from sprinkled wood shavings. The air carried a scent of pine needles, burnt logs and strong Norwegian coffee.

At their destination ­– a recently planted forest – the people sat or crouched on a slope dotted with spruce trees. Each tree was still only around 1m (3ft) tall, but one day, when the spruces are more than 20-30 times the size, they will provide the paper for a special collection of books. Everyone there knew they would not live to see that happen, nor would they ever get to read the books.

This was the 2022 Future Library ceremony, a 100-year art project created to expand people’s perspectives of time, and their duty to posterity. Every year since 2014, the Scottish artist Katie Paterson – along with her Norwegian counterpart Anne Beate Hovind and a group of trustees – has invited a prominent writer to submit a manuscript, and the commissioning will continue until 2113. Then, a century after the project began, they will all finally be published.

It began with the author Margaret Atwood, who wrote a story called Scribbler Moon, and since then the library has solicited submissions from all over the world, with works by English novelist David Mitchell, the Icelandic poet Sjón, Turkey’s Elif Shafak, Han Kang from South Korea, and Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong.

This year, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard came to the forest to hand over their stories (along with returning authors Mitchell and Sjón). Forbidden from revealing the content of their work, they could only share the titles: Dangarembga named hers Narini and Her Donkey – Narini derives from a Zimbabwean word for “infinity” – while Knausgaard submitted a more enigmatic title, simply: Blind Book.

All the manuscripts will be stored for almost a century inside locked glass drawers in a hidden corner of Oslo’s main public library, within a small, wooden repository called the Silent Room. In 2114, the drawers will be unlocked, and the trees chopped down – and 100 stories hidden for a century will finally be published in one go.

The authors ­– and everyone else who was in Oslo that Sunday – knew they would almost certainly not live to see that happen. “It’s a project that’s not only thinking about us now, but about those who are not born,” explains Paterson. In fact, she adds, “most of the authors are not even born yet”.

So, why build a library where no-one today can read the books? And what might be learnt from its story so far?

. . . .

The Future Library is not the first of Paterson’s artworks to tackle the human relationship with long-term time. She traces her fascination with the theme back to her early 20s, when she worked as a chambermaid in Iceland, and was struck by the extraordinary landscape around her. “You could almost read time in the strata, you could feel the midnight Sun and the energy of the Earth,” she says. “It just was a very beautiful, sublime, awakening landscape to be around.”

This led to one of her first works, Vatnajokull (the sound of): a phone number that anyone could call to listen to an Icelandic glacier melting. Dial the number, and you’d be routed to a microphone beneath the water in the Jökulsárlón lagoon on Iceland’s south coast, where blue-tinged icebergs calve away and float towards the sea.

Since then, Paterson has explored deeper timescales from various angles, geologically, astronomically, humanistically: a glitterball that projects nearly every known solar eclipse in history onto the walls, the “colour” of the Universe throughout its existence, the aroma of Earth’s first trees, or a necklace carved from 170 ancient fossils marking each stage of life.

One of her most recent exhibitions in Edinburgh, Requiem at Ingleby Gallery, featured 364 vials of crushed dust, each one representing a different moment in deep time. Vial #1 was a sample of presolar grains older than the Sun, followed by powdered four-billion-year-old rocks, corals from prehistoric seas, and other traces of the distant past.

A few visitors were invited to pour one of the vials into a central urn: when I was there in June, I poured #227, a four-million-year-old Asteroidea fossil, a kind of sea star. Later in time, the vials represent the age of humanity, capturing human accomplishment – Greek pottery or a Mayan figurine – but also darker moments: the bright blue grains of phosphorus fertiliser, microplastic from the deepest part of the ocean, or an irradiated tree-branch from Hiroshima. When your art deals in deep time, there’s no ignoring the onset of the Anthropocene, the age shaped by humans.

. . . .

The Future Library project is one of many artistic projects I’ve encountered in recent years that seeks to foster longer-term thinking. Over the past few years, I’ve been writing my own book called The Long View, which is about why the world needs to transform its perspective of time. Along the way, I’ve heard a musical composition that will play for 1,000 years, read an endless poem being embedded in a Dutch street one letter at a time, and acquired a framed invitation to a party in the year 2269. 

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is likely a cretin, but none of these projects are likely to appear on his must-see list.

The OP does include lots of photos of trees and pleasant-looking Norwegians, however.

Writing (and Living) in the Midst of Fear

From Writer Unboxed:

In Seattle, June is the cruelest month. Terrifying. Violent, too. A month where people rarely leave their homes, and if they must, they hurry from house to car, exhaling only once safely inside, windows rolled up, doors locked. In June, schools forgive truancy. Non-urgent appointments–dental check-ups, meetings with financial planners, eyebrow shaping–pretty much anything other than trips to the ER–are put off until mid-July.

Have you seen Hitchcock’s film, The Birds? Hitchcock himself claimed, “It could be the most terrifying motion picture I have ever made.”

I bet Hitchcock was inspired by Seattle in June.

Because of Poe’s quothing ravens, I’ve always found crows a bit sinister, but in general, I had no beef with any corvids, not really, until June 2013. While walking to get my daughter at school, a crow–out of nowhere–slapped me across the back of the head with a rolled-up magazine. At least, that’s what it felt like.

The June 2015 NPR story, “They Will Strafe You,” taught me these attacks are common. I was simply in the wrong place (near the crow’s fledglings) at the wrong time (June, fledgling season). This particular crow, undoubtedly sleep deprived and struggling with postpartum depression, deemed me a threat. Thus, she grabbed her June 2013 issue of The New Yorker, or perhaps The Economist, or maybe it was The New Republic, and whacked my head.

I began to fear another strafing.

“No eye contact, people!” I’d yell at my children, my husband, my dog, whenever I saw a crow. “You make eye contact, and THEY WILL STRAFE YOU!”  

The whole world was starting to feel unsafe, and not just in June. Year-round, I felt the beady eyes of crows upon me.

. . . .

At the end of May, bunion surgery left me horizontal with my sad, swollen foot in the air. For weeks, I crutched only between the TV room sofa and my Room of Convalescence. Back and forth, forth and back.

Then May became June.

June!

Bedridden and homebound, I could not escape their terrible cawing, could not ignore the murderous shadows that darkened my windows. Twenty-three days post-op, loopy with a weird mix of boredom and fatigue, tired of my POW status, I raised my fist at the crow-laden spruce in my yard.

“Nevermore!” I shouted. “NEVERMORE!”

After Googling “what do crows eat,” (the answer: “pretty much anything”) I crutched to the kitchen and found a box of stale, generic-brand Wheat Thins. I then crutched awkwardly–it’s difficult to crutch while holding a box of anything–to the sliding glass doors that leads to our backyard. I opened the doors six inches, set my crutches on the floor, sat myself beside my crutches, then frisbee’d a fistful of crackers outside.

And I waited.

Needless to say, by the end of the week, I had a handful of brainy crow-pals, all of whom I christened “Carroll,” a gender-neutral name that ensured I wouldn’t wrongly assume their preferred pronouns. Their crownouns.

Extending the olive branch of generic Wheat Thins, inviting my worst fear into our yard, having the opportunity to applaud the Carrolls for the way they neatly stacked crackers, four at a time, then transported their repast with Henry Ford-like efficiency to their roost, all that made me a little less fearful. Not fear-free, just less fear-full.

Except my husband was uncomfortable. My children, confused. My BFF, Erica, feared I had finally lost my mind. My funny friend, Robin, dropped off a little crow finger puppet.

Worse, there was exponentially more crow crap in our backyard. And things had gone missing: twine that held my husband’s raspberry bushes against the fence, a few of his melon seedlings, the pack of tiny-handed raccoons who sauntered, arrogant and badass, through our yard pretty much whenever they felt like it.

Would my dog be next?

Recently, I think a lot about fear. How, like a contagion, fear infects our hearts and brains, our relationships and communities. Even when there’s good reason to feel scared, fear tempts us to retreat, isolate, blame, hoard. Our hearts become hard, stingy. Our worlds become small. 

But thank goodness for writers! Writers invent stories that connect strangers and expand hearts, stories that make readers’ worlds bigger. Writers arrange words into images that remind people of the beauty that remains, even amid today’s difficult news. Stories, even scary ones, make us feel not so alone, not so disconnected, not so fear-filled. 

On June 1st, after spending ten years writing, and another ten years of rejection and revision, my loyal agent and I found a home for my first novel. 

I am thrilled.

Also, I am TERRIFIED. 

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

While not pretending to be a professional Crowologist, PG did have substantial interactions with crows during his youth.

If you would prefer that crows not hang around where you are, a twelve-gauge shotgun is a reliable preventative measure. Crows are very intelligent (for a bird) and, after only a couple of shotgun blasts followed by a cloud of black feathers drifting in the breeze, they’ll fly over to the neighboring farm for their meals instead of coming to yours.

PG is aware that shotguns are not a status symbol in San Francisco unless they’re in the hands of people with uniforms and badges who are not Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts.

PG doesn’t know whether drones are legal in San Francisco, but he speculates that if the author of the OP bought a drone and used it in an aggressive manner to attack the crows, that might do the trick.

If not, the author of the OP could hang a shotgun on the drone and fly it over the backyard to see if the crows have any genetic memory of of twelve-gauge blasts.

Even if you have a uniform and a badge, PG advises one and all to not to attempt to fire a shotgun that is dangling from a drone.

Unless you live in Ukraine and the drone is over a bunch of Russian soldiers.

Moonshot

From The Wall Street Journal:

We have heard so much about vaccines in the past 18 months that we may not welcome still more. But “Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible” is well worth looking at closely. Albert Bourla, Pfizer’s chief executive, boasts of saving millions of lives while restoring the otherwise tarnished image of the pharmaceutical industry. Yet his victory lap races by a hard truth: Covid-19 continues to cause disruption and challenge our confidence in science.

To be fair, the number of new cases did decline by 85% during the first few months after the vaccines hit the market in December 2020. But when cases hit a low point, in February 2021, only about 5% of the U.S. population had been vaccinated. Although it is easy to blame recent surges on the people who decided not to get vaccinated, current data show that states with the highest vaccination rates also have the most cases, hospitalizations and deaths. (Because hot spots move around, such statistical profiles change from month to month.) The current wave of new cases is hitting the unvaccinated, vaccinated and boosted alike. This is not to say that vaccines don’t work. They do reduce the severity of infection, but they haven’t delivered the promised herd immunity that would end the pandemic.

Pfizer’s ability to develop, test and distribute a vaccine in less than a year is, without doubt, a stunning accomplishment, and Mr. Bourla is right to feel proud. But he overdoes it, dropping the names of the presidents, prime ministers and world leaders who have sought his counsel. At times, he praises his colleagues and advisers, yet often in a context that shows them being subservient to the CEO. He quotes Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s former prime minister, who relays a long-ago comment from his brother (who led the 1976 Entebbe Raid and was killed in action): “There are not good or bad soldiers. There are only good or bad commanders.” Mr. Bourla seems to take this maxim to heart.

Mr. Bourla stresses the importance—for Pfizer and, in general, for the battle against Covid—of high ethical standards, complete transparency and trust in science. Yet “Moonshot” shows, sometimes inadvertently, the difficulty of meeting these admirable goals. Well into the pandemic, in March 2021, Mr. Bourla canceled a trip to advise Israeli researchers. Why? Because Israel denied entry to anyone who was not one week beyond his second Covid jab. That’s right, one of the most prominent vaccine promoters in the world wasn’t fully vaccinated at the time. “Getting vaccinated had created a crisis of confidence for me,” Mr. Bourla writes. “I chose to wait until my vaccination might be used to encourage those with vaccine hesitancy later on.” Does this claim meet a high ethical standard? Mr. Bourla thinks so; others might not. An aghast Mr. Netanyahu said to him: “My wife, who is sitting next to me, is asking when you plan to vaccinate yourself. What shall I tell her?”

How transparent has Pfizer been? In the book’s more than 200 pages, one topic is not explored in any real depth—side effects. Although the vaccine is generally regarded as safe, side effects do appear to be more common—and perhaps more severe—than for other widely used vaccines. In the 2020 clinical trial that provided the basis for FDA emergency-use authorization, more than 83% of 18- to 55-year-old participants (in comparison with 14% of those injected with a placebo) reported arm pain after their first shot, and approximately a third had a fever in reaction to their second (in contrast to less than 1% for a placebo). More serious side effects, like myocarditis, are rare, but they happen slightly more often following vaccination. Mr. Bourla might have paused to address the concerns of those who worry about side effects, if only to put the matter in proper perspective.

Mr. Bourla asserts that, ultimately, “science will win.” Who could argue with that? The problem is that science is a process that works best when research findings are peer-reviewed and when calculations are verified by independent scientists with no vested interest in a commercial product. Pfizer skipped this step. Instead it used internally controlled trials and first made the results public through highly curated press releases that showed its evidence in the best light. “In the past,” Mr. Bourla explains, “politicians and governments would pressure us to share data and learnings more quickly than we were comfortable.” This time, he says, Pfizer held off on sharing data lest it fuel a counternarrative. Even now, Pfizer has not released data that would allow independent scientists to verify its analyses. If the evidence is in the public interest, shouldn’t the data be in the public domain?

At a Dec. 10, 2020, hearing on emergency-use authorization, conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, several of the presentations and a number of comments from the general public raised concerns about how long vaccine protection would last. But the one clinical trial used to justify the authorization followed participants for only two months, and Pfizer was so confident of the vaccine’s durable benefit that it vaccinated the placebo group, calling the decision the only “ethical” option. By June 2021, however, Pfizer understood that protection against infection declines after only a few months. When it acknowledged this fact, Mr. Bourla says, officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and at the FDA feared that the disclosure would provoke more vaccine hesitancy. Perhaps it did. But it also helped Pfizer gain the authorization and public financing for a third dose.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The strange case of Elvis Presley’s musical posterity

From The Economist:

At the peak of his fame, Elvis Presley was perhaps the most recognisable individual on the planet. Just as you may conjure Charlie Chaplin in your mind’s eye using only a bowler hat, a toothbrush moustache and a cane, it is easy to picture Presley with no more than a quiff, a curled lip and a high collar. He remains sufficiently alive in the cultural memory to be a mononym: nobody ever asks, “Elvis, who?” Yet Presley has faded from the forefront of the world’s collective consciousness. Reminders of his existence are no longer constant and inescapable.

Perhaps that is inevitable given he died almost 45 years ago, in August 1977, while his contemporaries of a similar stature have continued performing. More than 50 years after their split, the Beatles have retained much of their eminence: consider, for example, that Paul McCartney is headlining Glastonbury festival this year. Bob Dylan, a Nobel laureate in 2016, is earning plaudits for his latest work. The Rolling Stones are in the midst of a stadium tour. All those acts, or their principal members, have had the advantage of living on long after Presley died. John Lennon is an exception: he died only three years after Presley, yet is frequently invoked and commemorated.

Presley may be the bestselling solo artist of all time, but that feat leans heavily on the physical-format era. He ranks only 24th on Spotify’s streaming chart of legacy artists, behind other departed acts including Nirvana, 2Pac and Led Zeppelin. What is more telling is how relatively little he is seen. In the 1990s he was, in that overused and misapplied word, iconic: an object of what amounted to religious worship. He was also a go-to reference for cartoons, film and television scripts and comedy punchlines. Elvis impersonators were an industry: a film of 1992, “Honeymoon In Vegas”, featured an entire planeload of them dropping from the sky on parachutes in a symbolic display of both the singer’s godlike ubiquity and his descent into caricature.

A new film not only seeks to place Presley front and centre once again but also, if inadvertently, offers clues as to why he lost that spotlight in the first place. “Elvis” is directed with typical over-the-top brio by Baz Luhrmann. The Australian film-maker has a noted flair for lavish yet sincere camp and it chimes perfectly with Presley’s own sensibility, which could be gaudy and overblown, but was never less than heartfelt. It is this last quality that Mr Luhrmann has sought to restore to a superstar who became widely perceived as a self-parodic joke in his later years and even more so in his cultural afterlife.

“Elvis” is three different films brought together into a whole that, while unwieldy, is spectacular to look at and not for a moment boring (again, much like Presley himself.) One part is an exploration of the relationship between Presley and his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker was a former carnival worker who used every bit of that job’s manipulative tradecraft to promote and exploit Presley. In a delicious turn by Tom Hanks, Parker is a melodrama villain and an unreliable narrator.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Here’s a link to the movie’s trailer

The Empress and the English Doctor

From The Wall Street Journal:

What a cursed kind of privilege it is to be the physician in charge of the life of a world leader. In April 2020, stories circulated about doctors from the intensive-care unit of London’s St. Thomas’s Hospital texting the Downing Street communications team when Covid-suffering Boris Johnson, as the prime minister himself would later put it, “could have gone either way.” If the virus took a lethal turn, his doctors and PR flacks wondered, who would say what, when? Scenes from the film “The Death of Stalin” flashed by: the body, the indecision, the panic.

How much worse it must have been for the 56-year-old Thomas Dimsdale, in his dark suit and curled wig, drawn from the comfort of his farmhouse in Hertfordshire, England, to travel a grueling 1,700 miles overland in a carriage to St. Petersburg. Dimsdale had been summoned by Catherine the Great to inoculate not only the empress herself but also her 13-year-old heir, the Grand Duke Paul. Catherine sought protection from smallpox, that scourge of the world that, through the ingenuity of science and social persuasion, became the first—and still the only—disease to have been eradicated by the interventions of mankind.

The smallpox pandemic makes Covid seem like a scene-stealing extra: More lethal and more contagious, it rolled through society in wave after devastating wave. In London in 1752, it was responsible for one out of every seven deaths. Uncertainty followed fever and pustules. The remedy in itself was ineffective and miserable: bleeding, puncturing to release the pus, and sweating in blankets. It was a course of treatment determined by a lingering belief in the four vital humors—blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile—whose balance supposedly dictated health. (One of Dimsdale’s contributions to the march of medical history seems to have been his insistence on opening the window.)

As Lucy Ward dramatically relates in “The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus,” Catherine’s invitation was a high-stakes affair, a testament to Dimsdale’s writings on the methodology of smallpox inoculation and his reputation for solicitous care. His Quaker upbringing had encouraged a brand of outcome- rather than ego-led practice.

Inoculation preceded vaccination. The approach was initially brought to Europe by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had first noted the practice in Constantinople. She insisted on having her own children inoculated, and convinced the Hanoverian court to follow suit, led by the future Queen Caroline, whose children, too, were subjected to the procedure.

The disease followed a heartbreaking trajectory, killing children and the young, disfiguring women and destroying their prospects for marriage even if they survived. An incredible “five reigning monarchs were dethroned by smallpox in the eighteenth century,” we are told, including Peter the Great’s grandson, the child Emperor Peter II. In Vienna, Empress Maria Theresa lost her son, two daughters and two daughters-in-law. Survival rates in Russia were particularly low. No wonder Catherine wanted to try her luck with science.

As devastating as smallpox was, for the empress herself and the grand duke who would succeed her to personally undergo inoculation was a risk to both patient and doctor. On the success side stood immunity from the disease, an almost holy example for Catherine’s people, and as-yet-untold riches for her nervous doctor. On the other side, not only the fact that all Russia would refuse the treatment if their “Little Mother” died, but also a disaster for Dimsdale and the son who had accompanied him. Geopolitics came into play too—if things went wrong, some would interpret it as a foreign assassination.

All the descriptions of lancet cuts and pus are one thing—it is the experimentation on impoverished children that makes for painful reading. Young army cadets are experimented on; a 6-year-old, “small as a bug,” according to Catherine, supplies the viral matter to his empress, who is prepared with “five grains of the mercurial powder” and purged with “calomel, crabs’ claws and antimony.” Then she waits it out at Tsarskoe Selo, her summer palace, in the hope of a desirable progression: outbreak, recovery.

With a happy result for her and her less-robust son, Catherine sets about publicizing the success. Dimsdale receives the equivalent of more than $20 million and a barony.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

William Dimsdale
Catherine II on a balcony of the Winter Palace on 9 July 1762, the day of the coup that placed her in power

A brief summary of the history of Catherine the Great, whose life was substantially extended by Dr. Dimsdale:

  • She was born in Prussia as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg.
  • Prussian king Frederick the Great took an active part in promoting the future Catherine (then Princess Sophie) as an ideal spouse for a likely future tsar of Russia.
  • Sophie arrived in Russia in 1744 and aggressively worked to ingratiate herself with the reigning ruler, Empress Elizabeth and with the Russian people. She learned to speak, read and write Russian, rising at night and walking about her bedroom barefoot, repeating her lessons. When she wrote her memoirs, she said she made the decision then to do whatever was necessary and to profess to believe whatever was required of her to become qualified to wear the crown. 
  • She became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and received a new name, Catherine (Yekaterina or Ekaterina) 
  • The following day, she married the man who would become Peter III. Catherine was 16 at the time.
  • Peter was an eccentric idiot when she married him and after he ascended to the Russian throne.
  • Upon the death of his mother, Peter ascended to the throne.
  • Catherine organized a coup to overthrow her husband. Six months after Peter became tsar, Catherine had Peter arrested and he signed a written abdication of the throne in favor of his wife.
  • Shortly thereafter, Peter died. There were rumors that he had been assassinated, but after an autopsy, the official cause of death was found to be a severe attack of haemorrhoidal colic and an apoplexy stroke.
  • Catherine ascended to the throne. Her crown weighed over five pounds and contained 75 pearls and 4,936 Indian diamonds forming laurel and oak leaves, the symbols of power and strength, and was surmounted by a 398.62-carat ruby spinel that previously belonged to the Empress Elizabeth, and a diamond cross.  A photo of the crown and orb taken in 1896 is inserted at the bottom of this post.
  • Catherine reigned as monarch for well over thirty years, from 1762–1796.
  • During her reign, Catherine extended by some 520,000 square kilometres (200,000 sq mi – an area a little smaller the State of Texas and about the size of present-day France ) the borders of the Russian Empire, absorbing New Russia, Crimea, Northern Caucasus, Right-bank Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Courland at the expense, mainly, of two powers—the Ottoman Empire and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Do we need a better understanding of ‘progress’?

From The BBC:

You’re a typical American in 1870. You live on a rural farm. If you’re a man, you likely began a lifetime of manual labour as a teen, which will end when you’re disabled or dead. If you’re a woman, you spend your time on labour-intensive housework. If you’re Black or any other minority, life is even harder.

You’re isolated from the world, with no telephone or postal service. When night falls, you live by candlelight. You defecate in an outhouse.

One day, you fall asleep and wake up in 1940. Life is totally different. Your home is “networked” – you have electricity, gas, telephone, water, and sewer connections. You marvel at new forms of entertainment, like the phonograph, radio, and motion picture. The Empire State Building looms over New York, surrounded by other impossibly tall buildings. You might own a car, and if you don’t, you have met people who do. Some of the wealthiest people you encounter have even flown in a plane.

These transformations, documented in the economic historian Robert Gordon’s 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growthemerged thanks to a “special century” of unusually high economic growth between 1870 and 1970. And it wasn’t just a US story – the industrialised nations experienced dizzying transformations during the early 20th Century.

. . . .

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

For most of history, the world improved at a sluggish pace, if at all. Civilisations rose and fell. Fortunes were amassed and squandered. Almost every person in the world lived in what we would now call extreme poverty. For thousands of years, global wealth – at least our best approximations of it – barely budged.

But beginning around 150-200 years ago, everything changed. The world economy suddenly began to grow exponentially. Global life expectancy climbed from less than 30 years to more than 70 years. Literacy, extreme poverty, infant mortality, and even height improved in a similarly dramatic fashion. The story may not be universally positive, nor have the benefits been equally distributed, but by many measures, economic growth and advances in science and technology have changed the way of life for billions of people.

What explains this sudden explosion in relative wealth and technological power? What happens if it slows down, or stagnates? And if so, can we do something about it? These are key questions of “progress studies”, a nascent self-styled academic field and intellectual movement, which aims to dissect the causes of human progress in order to better advance it.

Founded by an influential economist and a billionaire entrepreneur, this community tends to define progress in terms of scientific or technological advancement, and economic growth – and therefore their ideas and beliefs are not without their critics. So, what does the progress studies movement believe, and what do they want to see happen in the future?

. . . .

One of the first ways to understand the progress studies movement is to understand its fears. Over the past few years, a number of researchers and economists have raised concerns that scientific and technological progress could be slowing down, which they worry will cause economic growth to stagnate.

To illustrate this more tangibly, Gordon invites his readers to reflect on the rate of progress between the mid-late 20th Century and 2020s. Imagine after that first nap as a typical American, you had taken a second one in 1940, waking up in the 2020s. Your fridge now has a freezer, and your new microwave lets you reheat your leftovers. You are refreshed by air conditioning. You are far more likely to own a car now, and it’s safer and easier to drive. You have a computer, TV, and smartphone. These are impressive inventions, and some seem like magic, but over time, you realise that your living standards haven’t transformed quite as much as when you woke up in 1940.

. . . .

Gordon claims that the staggering changes in the US of 1870-1970 were built on transformative, one-time innovations, and therefore Americans can’t expect similar levels of growth to return anytime soon, if ever. The remarkable thing is “not that growth is slowing down but that it was so rapid for so long”, he writes. In Gordon’s view, this slowdown isn’t anyone’s fault: “American growth slowed down after 1970 not because inventors had lost their spark or were devoid of new ideas, but because the basic elements of a modern standard of living had by then already been achieved along so many dimensions.”

Gordon builds on fears made famous by economist Tyler Cowen in his 2011 book, The Great Stagnation. Cowen similarly argues that the US ate most of the “low-hanging fruit” that enabled consistent growth in American median incomes, and that the country can’t expect to grow like it used to.

So, have all the low-hanging fruit gone? Are “ideas” getting harder to find? A team of economists from Stanford and MIT posed this exact question in a 2020 paper. They found that research and development efforts have significantly increased, while per-researcher productivity has declined. In other words, we’re getting less for our time and money. A lot less. They estimate that each doubling of technological advancement requires four-times as much research effort as the previous doubling.

. . . .

Why? Some from the progress community point to sclerotic funding bureaucracies, which eat nearly half of researcher time and create perverse incentives. This may explain some of the drop-off, but the paper authors found that US research productivity has declined more than 40 times since the 1930s. Is it plausible that US scientific funding became that much less efficient?

Instead, the authors favour Gordon and Cowen’s low-hanging fruit arguments: we’ve found the easy discoveries and now put more effort towards what remains. For instance, compare the insights that Albert Einstein made as a patent clerk, or that Marie Curie unlocked in a rudimentary lab, to multibillion-dollar megaprojects like the Large Hadron Collider or James Webb Space Telescope.

We have partially compensated for this decline by increasing the share of the population going towards research, but this, of course, can’t go on forever. Global population growth may help, but this is expected to slow and then reverse before the end of the century. It’s also possible that artificial intelligence (AI) could help reverse the decline – or even initiate a new era of explosive growth – but some researchers fear that superintelligent AI could bring other risks that harm progress, or worse.

. . . .

The origin of progress studies

Around 2016, Cowen received an out-of-the-blue email from Irish billionaire Patrick Collison, who was interested in his book, The Great Stagnation. A few years earlier, Collison had cofounded the online payments company Stripe and now wanted to talk about bigger issues. The pair had a few dinners together in San Francisco and hit it off.

Both Cowen and Collison are infovores. Collison has posted his entire nearly 800-volume bookshelf to his personal site (though he admits he’s only read about half of them). Cowen’s practice of ruthlessly scouring books for the information value they contain and abandoning them – sometimes after five minutes – may make some completionists shudder.

Cowen’s information-production is nearly as prolific as his consumption. The 60-year-old economist has authored nearly 20 books, 40 papers, six years of Bloomberg columns, over 150 episodes of his podcast, and nearly 20 years of blog posts on his popular economics blog Marginal Revolution. During our conversation, Cowen’s voice was hoarse from the marathon of interviews he conducted to promote his most recent book. In 2020, Cowen ranked 17th on a list of the top 100 most influential economists.

Collison, nearly three decades younger and running the fourth-most valuable private startup in the world, has written less, but still found time to publish collections of links on topics like air pollution, culture, growth, Silicon Valley history, and, of course, progress. Stripe’s nearly $100bn (£83bn/€95bn) valuation puts Collison’s net worth north of $11bn (£9bn/€10.5bn). The online payments company combines the lofty “change the world” rhetoric of Silicon Valley startups with the mundane, competent pipes-building of an infrastructure company.

During the pair’s meetings, Cowen tells me, “we were both talking about the ideas, finding we had common ideas, and somehow hit upon the notion of an article”. So, in 2019, they co-authored an essay in The Atlantic, which argued for “a new science of progress”.

“There is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study,” they wrote. “We suggest inaugurating the discipline of ‘progress studies.'”

Link to the rest at The BBC

PG is reminded of a conversation he had at an annual meeting of The American Bar Association in the 1990’s (he thinks).

It was a fascinating discussion of Future Studies which sounded then to PG a little like Progress Studies as described in the OP. The guy PG spoke with (PG apologizes for not recalling his name) was the head (and, PG suspected the only employee) of something called The Future Studies Project at Harvard University. The last time PG checked, there was a Department or an equivalent entity that was involved in future studies.

There’s even a Wikipedia entry for Future Studies.

The idea of Future Studies and Progress Studies is that we need to think about and make plans regarding Progress and the Future.

While PG finds nothing inherently bad about this class of endeavors, he thinks that chance and ideas/forces coming out of left field will continue to affect the future and progress to a greater extent than academic studies of those topics.

There are also unexpected political and leadership factors that, as the West considers Russia, China, Ukraine, etc., cause or allow a variety of startling events.

PG would love to know whether any Russia/Communist/Asian/Eastern European/etc. experts predicted the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. This event doesn’t seem like something Progress Studies or Future Studies would predict other than on a level so general that the predictions would be of any value before the event took place.

The War on Music

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you’ve attended any classical-music concert in the past 50 years, you’re likely to have heard a technically superior performance of old music, and no new music at all that you could understand or enjoy. The situation is exactly reversed from what it was in Europe for nearly the entire history of classical music: Technical proficiency was largely unacceptable by today’s standards, but audiences heard—and expected to hear—the latest works of living composers.

What happened? The answers are many and tangled, but nearly all critics and historians who take up the “crisis of classical music,” as it’s inevitably described, sidestep or ignore the scarcity of new music that engages the public today and instead dwell on the decline in cultural pre-eminence of classical music in general. Their complaints are familiar: Concert halls are full of silver-hairs, Mozart can’t compete with rock ’n’ roll, governments have cut funding to orchestras, and so on.

But these problems, if they are problems at all, are tertiary concerns next to the near-total inability of post-World War II America and Europe to produce more than a small number of classical works that any normal person would want to hear. That failure is slowly killing classical music. You can’t expect the public to remain engaged with works of the distant past if the present doesn’t produce anything interesting. Today’s concertgoers are not antiquaries; they, too, no less than music lovers in centuries gone by, want to enjoy and rave about the latest thing. 

The great virtue of John Mauceri’s “The War on Music: Reclaiming the Twentieth Century” is that it acknowledges what many writers on the subject know but can’t say: that something went badly wrong in music in the 20th century, and especially after 1945. The time has come, Mr. Mauceri writes, “to ask why so much contemporary music played by our greatest musical institutions—and supported overwhelmingly by music critics—is music that the vast majority of people do not want to hear—and have never wanted to hear.”

Mr. Mauceri, an accomplished conductor and music scholar, blames the two world wars and the Cold War. After the cataclysm of World War II, he contends, the cultural arbiters of Europe faced a dilemma. In Austria and Germany, critics and academics could not, for obvious reasons, champion composers whom the Third Reich had elevated. But many of the composers the Nazis had declared entartete, or degenerate—Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Arnold Schoenberg—had by the 1950s fled to America and were writing in a more tonal and “accessible” style. Some of them, such as Korngold and Franz Waxman, were writing film music in Hollywood—a sure way to be dismissed by the anointed.

“A simple solution was found,” Mr. Mauceri writes, “that involved a tacit agreement between the masses and the masters: Do not play any of it.” Central Europe’s musical establishment thus ignored music the Nazis banned and the music they promoted. Italy’s music critics, meanwhile, had a similar problem and took a similar approach, according to Mr. Mauceri. Opera composers “up to and including Puccini,” who died in 1924, could remain in the repertory; everything from the ’30s and ’40s had to go.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

Polybius of Megalopolis: History Isn’t Always Written by Victors

From Antigone Journal:

The common saying that history is written by the victors is of uncertain origin. Whilst it may be true that the victors in a conflict (or, at least, those with superior power) can have a stronger influence over the prevailing version of events after the fact, it is certainly not true that historical accounts only ever emanate from the victors. This is perhaps especially difficult to appreciate in an age where information is more widely available than ever, and public expression of opinion (and thus of varying versions and viewpoints) is now far more widely accessible than it has ever been.

However, on rare occasions we are still able to glimpse historical views from the ‘other’ side. One particularly interesting example of this in action is the Greek second-century BC historian, Polybius of Megalopolis. Not only was he not one of the victors, but he was an eyewitness and active player in the events he describes. He did find favour with the victors, but not immediately. It is believed he began writing his famous work of history in the 150s BC, after over ten years’ detainment in Rome. In his work, he seeks to explain the Romans’ successful rise to power to a primarily Greek audience. He dwelt among the victors (the Romans), he conversed with them, and, in the end, they in turn sought his help.

. . . .

Polybius had been making a promising career for himself in the Greek Achaean League, a federal-style organization of cities, united to maintain their freedoms against the kingdoms that arose from Alexander the Great’s splintered empire. Onto this tense stage the Romans made their first proper entrance in 229 BC against the Illyrian Ardiaeae tribe, then under the rule of queen Teuta, wife of the former king Agron. Following their victory in this encounter, the Romans were cordially welcomed and thanked by the Greek city-states of the Achaean League, even being invited to the Isthmian games by the Corinthians (Histories, 2.12.4–8).

Just over 60 years later, in 168 BC, it was a dramatically different state of affairs. Following their defeat of Perseus, king of Macedon, the Romans were the dominant power in the Mediterranean, and not just over Greece. Another consequence of the conflict was that a thousand Greek statesmen, made up primarily of men from the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues, found themselves bound for Italy. They were under suspicion of collusion with Perseus, and of being in active opposition to the Roman power’s presence in the Greek world. Polybius was among them. To understand why he was in this group, how he effectively ended up on the ‘losing side’, and how his experience connects to the spread of Roman influence over the Greek world, a little further examination of the historical context is essential.

Rome and The Tensions in Greek politics (196–167 BC)

Polybius saw the Roman victory in the war against Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, as a watershed moment (202 BC). Rome’s greatest rival had been defeated, her power had been proven. Victory over Philip V of Macedon, who had made a treaty with Hannibal, followed quickly in 198 BC. Despite an apparent show of respect for Greek freedom in the Isthmian proclamation of 196, which declared key Greek cities autonomous and free from tribute, Roman presence was certainly not withdrawn from Greece. This brought the Romans into conflict with Antiochus II of the Seleucid empire, the most powerful of the surviving successor kingdoms (those which were established following the break-up of Alexander the Great’s empire). Following Antiochus’ defeat, it was abundantly clear that Roman power could be neither cast off nor ignored.

What this meant for the Greeks, and how they were to deal with this new reality, stoked the fires of debate and division across the Greek-speaking world. Polybius portrays this issue as divided  irreconcilably between roughly three camps of thought: the cautiously cooperative, though not slavish advocates (like his own father Lycrotas, hero politician Philopoemen, and, at least originally, himself); the pragmatists who believed that Roman orders should be accepted to avoid hostile reprisals (see Polybius 18.13 on the urgings of Aristaenus in the 190s, when he cast off the Achaean alliance with Philip of Macedon); and finally – the group Polybius so evidently despises – the sycophantic types who favoured embracing Roman orders and who betrayed those who were less enthusiastic for their own aggrandisement.

On an embassy to Rome, after a debate in the League about whether to follow League procedure or Roman orders, a fawner, Callicrates, offered the Roman Senate some advice. He told them, essentially, that if they wanted to secure a foothold in Greece, they should support sympathetic ‘advocates’ like himself who could silence the more recalcitrant Greeks. Following this policy seems to have worked (24.12.1–4), as direct Roman micro-management seems to have escalated after that point.

Several scholars have argued that this brought a ‘new wisdom’ or ‘new policy’ from Rome, as their more active meddling and fostering of division now affected the Greek cities.[1] These are not, however, Polybian coinages, nor do I think they reflect his view. At 24.12, Polybius does say that the Romans adopted a new policy of promoting those Greeks who favoured them, and of undermining those whom they perceived to be more hostile to Roman interests. However, what he is highlighting is a new method in enforcing Roman orders, not a new aim in terms of securing Greek obedience.

This state of affairs persisted, and deteriorated. The Roman Senate even tried to meddle in the Macedonian succession, promoting the older son of Philip V, who was favourable to their influence, as successor. He was murdered, Perseus succeeded, and – if you believe Polybius – he inherited his father’s hatred of Rome as much as the throne (23.7–8), a hatred which ironically hastened his downfall.

What did Polybius do wrong?

Polybius was certainly not going to advocate surrendering the freedoms of his league to curry favour for himself, but he was cooperative. Yet, despite this, in 168, he was deported as a hostile collaborator. Polybius himself attributed his exile to the following incident during the Roman war against Perseus.

At 28.13, Polybius describes how, while leading, troops that the League had voted in support of the Romans against King Perseus, he arrived to meet the Roman general Marcius. This suggests he was by no means on the side of the enemy. Marcius, however, greeted him by informing him that these troops were no longer needed. Polybius makes clear that he and the Achaeans with him were anxious to emphasise their willing cooperation and acceptance of the request that had come from the Romans for these soldiers. And Polybius himself remained to assist.

A further demand for extra troops then came from the Roman commander Cento, who was in Epirus. Polybius was sent back to the Peloponnese, having been told by Marcius that Cento had no reason to make such a demand and that Polybius should prevent compliance with this unnecessary expense for the Achaeans. Upon returning, Polybius was presented again with Cento’s request in the League assembly.

This left him in something of a quandary. Should he reveal Marcius’ private instructions? If so, he would risk disloyalty to another Roman general. He decided he could not openly oppose the demand. Instead, he suggested that the assembly should consult the Roman consul before they proceeded. However, the slavish pro-Roman sycophants among the Greeks had their ammunition to attack Polybius. This sequence of events could be twisted into a tale of Polybius trying to thwart the efforts of a Roman commander (Cento) by failing to provide the assistance he had sought. Polybius might as well have been on the losing side: his loyalty to Rome was in question.

Link to the rest at Antigone Journal

Working on a Vineyard Taught Me to Slow Down and Pay Attention

From Catapult:

I first saw L’Albera at night. I’d traveled north by train from Barcelona to Figueres, Salvador Dalí’s hometown, and then by bus to Sant Climent Sescebes, a village of about six hundred people near the French border. It was dark when I boarded the bus, and I could only make out vague silhouettes in the dim landscape around me. We wound through quiet neighborhoods, their stone buildings illuminated by weak streetlights. Passengers left the bus one by one. At the second-to-last stop, a man in army fatigues got out and disappeared into the darkness. There was, I’d been told, a military base just outside of town, and on some days artillery practice could be heard across the foothills. I was headed to the last stop, farther north and east, to a forested nature reserve in L’Albera. It was strange, I thought—a nature reserve next to a military base: preservation and destruction adjacent.

Barbara, one of the winemakers I’d be staying with for a few months, picked me up in a blue van. She had a wide smile and feathery eyebrows that reminded me of an owl’s tufts, and she spoke to me in Italian-accented Spanish, a holdover from her three decades in Milan. She drove us ten minutes down a dirt road, toward the mountains. The massif of L’Albera was the easternmost extension of the Pyrenees and eventually tapered off into the Mediterranean; just beyond was France. Sweeping south from the mountains was an alluvial plain, called Empordá; dispersed across the plain were Roman-era footpaths and megalithic stone monuments called dolmens, which dated back some seven thousand years. In the foothills, one could sense the antiquity of the land, Barbara told me.

Joan Carles, Barbara’s husband, was sitting in the farmhouse kitchen when we arrived. It was cavernous and drafty, with a massive hearth in one corner and a gas stove next to a worn wooden table. Carles, as Barbara called him, had a low, gruff voice, his Spanish inflected with a northern Catalan accent that required my full attention to comprehend. After a few minutes chatting—about missiles the army had accidentally lobbed into a nearby forest several years before—Barbara showed me to my room upstairs. It was spartan, with a small desk and chair and a double bed facing a set of glass doors. The doors led to a terrace that looked out onto farmland. Settling onto the mattress, I watched the night deepen until I fell asleep.

L’Albera was just the name of the mountain range, but I came to think of it as a region unto itself.

During the springtime, the season I’d come to live there, Carles and Barbara spent much of the day working in the vines for their winery, called Celler La Gutina. They had eighty hectares of land, a patchwork of vineyard, oak and chestnut forest, and olive groves interspersed with scrubland, meadows, and ponds that existed only during years of good rainfall. The river Anyet threaded through the foothills, and trails connected the region’s villages. The landscape brimmed with life: A diversity of plants—wild asparagus, thyme, lavender, rosemary, sage—flourished alongside javelinas, turtles, eagles, and owls. On the property lived a number of farm animals too: five chickens, two horses, two dogs, and two donkeys.

The vines themselves amounted to some fifteen hectares, scattered in small parcels around the property, and needed attention year-round. Working with them required a profound knowledge of place. The orientation of the vineyard—whether it faced north, south, east, or west—affected the vines’ growth, as did elevation, humidity, wind patterns, and strength of sunlight. All of these factors played a subtle role in how the wine tasted.

Link to the rest at Catapult

Young People Discover Hot New Writer—Agatha Christie

From The Wall Street Journal:

Agatha Christie became famous in the 1920s as a mystery writer.

For younger generations, she’s the next hot thing.

Shashwata Roy, a 17-year-old fan of space and computers, tweeted in March that Ms. Christie’s 1926 novel “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is an “absolute must read…review coming up.”

The student in Kolkata said he planned to read all her novels. “The unique way of storytelling is something I think is very rare nowadays,” he said.

The British author may be long gone, but her fictional whodunits—often solved by an elderly British lady or a fussy Belgian detective—have made her a star with fans more used to streaming Marvel movies or scrolling through TikTok—where videos labeled with the tag #AgathaChristie have racked up more than 26 million views.

“Agatha is sparking with younger readers, and I don’t see that with any other writer from her period,” said Devin Abraham, owner of the Once Upon A Crime mystery bookstore in Minneapolis. Customers who ask for books by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett—both contemporaries of Ms. Christie—are generally in their 50s or 60s, said Ms. Abraham.

. . . .

“Who’s that? I have never heard of Raymond Chandler,” said Ari DiDomenico, a 17-year-old Christie fan in San Diego. She said classic novelists, such as Jane Austen, didn’t hold her attention since the “language was too old-timey.”

“Agatha Christie’s writing style is more to the point, and the pacing works really well,” she said.

The jump in interest can be traced to the 2017 movie version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” featuring Kenneth Branagh as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It “was game changing,” said James Prichard, the chief executive officer of Agatha Christie Ltd., which manages the literary and media rights to the author’s works. “Sales went up for all the books.” (There was also a spike in popularity following the 1974 movie version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” said Mr. Prichard, who is Ms. Christie’s great-grandson.)

“Death on the Nile,” which also starred Mr. Branagh as Poirot and an ensemble of young movie stars in a sexy tale of double-cross and murder, came out this year and has grossed more than $137 million globally, according to Box Office Mojo.

. . . .

Sales of Agatha Christie books in the U.S. rose 39% in the first quarter from last year’s period, according to book tracker NPD BookScan.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Josephine Baker was a true hero of the second world war

From The Economist:

In modern parlance, she was a “triple threat”. Josephine Baker could act, dance and sing—and did all three at Chez Josephine, her nightclub in Paris, and in several films. After escaping the Jim Crow South, she found fame in Europe in the period between the wars and made France her adopted home. Dancing in risqué costumes, she helped Parisians remember how to enjoy themselves. Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, a French author, likened Baker to a “most beautiful panther”. Ernest Hemingway reckoned the performer was “the most sensational woman anybody ever saw. Or ever will.”

Perhaps Baker should be considered a quadruple threat, as she also displayed a talent for spying during the second world war. She helped the Allies as an honourable correspondent of the Deuxième Bureau, or French military intelligence, ferrying secret documents across enemy lines. (She often pinned papers to her underclothes.) Whereas the typical agent receded into the shadows, fame was her cover. As she brassily declared: “Who would dare search Josephine Baker to the skin?”

Her contributions to the war effort are now reasonably well known, described in numerous biographies, television series and films. Baker received the Légion d’Honneur and a symbolic interment in the Panthéon, a monument to French national heroes. But additional files on her intelligence activities were released by the French government in 2020 and are the occasion for a new book by Damien Lewis, a popular historian. “The Flame of Resistance” (to be published as “Agent Josephine” in America) is an entertaining, if occasionally breathless, account of a true hero of the second world war.

Baker’s early missions involved helping the British and French governments divine the intentions of Italy and Japan before they joined the Axis. With her easy glamour and charm, she earned the confidence of an attaché at the Italian embassy and got him talking about Mussolini’s plans to ally with Germany. Next Baker exploited a friendship with the wife of Japan’s ambassador to France to pick up titbits about that country’s intentions. Both efforts were cited in a later war decoration.

Her most important operation was to carry a priceless cache of intelligence from Paris to Lisbon. The documents included photographs of German military equipment, lists of Abwehr agents, details on Luftwaffe airbases and plans for the German seizure of Gibraltar. Accompanying Baker was her handler—and lover—Jacques Abtey, who posed as her tour manager. Mr Lewis narrates their train rides, airplane connections and border crossings with élan. At Canfranc, where France meets Spain, Baker beguiled the station agents, who were too dazzled to search the mountain of trunks that contained documents covered in invisible ink.

Baker lent support to the Allies in other ways, too. Her chateau in the Dordogne became an informal headquarters for the Resistance during Germany’s occupation of France. When she fell ill with peritonitis later in the war, she allowed her hospital suite to be used as a dead-drop location. After recovering, she returned to the stage to perform for Allied troops across north Africa and for prisoners at the Buchenwald concentration camp after it was liberated. She often stipulated that the crowds not be segregated by race. At all stops, her signature song was “J’ai Deux Amours”, the two loves being America and Paris.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Review of The Flame of Resistance: The Untold Story of Josephine Baker’s Secret War. By Damien Lewis. Quercus; 496 pages; £21.99. To be published as “Agent Josephine: American Beauty, French Hero, British Spy” in America by PublicAffairs in July; $32

In the Shadow of the Gods

From The Wall Street Journal:

The talent that creates an empire is often in conflict with the skills that preserve it. The “recklessly heroic style” of Alexander the Great, Dominic Lieven notes in his new book, was a political dead end. Even in durable empires, a tension remains between the emperor, whose authority is supreme and superhuman, and the empire, in which power is managed by bureaucrats, soldiers, viceroys and local elites. Empires are founded by war and personal charisma, but they are sustained by paperwork and compromise.

Mr. Lieven, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, compares the Chinese emperor who bore the Mandate of Heaven to the helmsman of “a great modern family firm.” Most heirs and emperors are not up to the job, but the system sustains them regardless. The emperor is always a “captive of his officials.” Valentinian I of Rome, who seems to have found this arrangement frustrating, kept Goldflake and Innocence, “two savage and underfed man-eating bears, outside his bedroom as a warning to his entourage.”

In the Shadow of the Gods” is an instructive epic, deficient only in that the author does not pursue his subject to the present day. Mr. Lieven defines emperors as “hereditary holders of supreme authority,” ruling disparate populations over long distances. They are usually male, notwithstanding Catherine the Great of Russia, Victoria of Great Britain, and Cixi, the dowager empress of China. The modern age, Mr. Lieven argues, is a “radically new era” in which hereditary and sacred monarchy are “no longer viable.”

Imperial authority always was symbolic as well as actual. From his invention, the emperor was, if not divine, then the next best thing, tricked out in the ancient robes of “sacred monarchy.” The first emperor was Sargon of Akkad (2334-2279 BCE), a Near Eastern priest-king who found his city-state too small and conquered modern Iraq and Syria. As Elizabeth II, the daughter of the last emperor of India, heads the Church of England, so Sargon’s daughter became high-priestess of the moon god in the temple at Ur.

One of the things the Romans did for us was to define empire. Under the Roman republic, an imperator was a victorious general, and later one of two consuls. The empire began in 27 BCE under Augustus, the victor of Rome’s civil wars. A “ruthless and skilful politician,” Augustus mollified the senatorial aristocracy with a small share of his power and a “much greater helping of top jobs and patronage.” He learned from his uncle Julius Caesar’s mistakes, refusing to be “officially proclaimed a living god” in Rome, and calling himself primus inter pares, “first among equals.” But he accepted the divine status bestowed by local elites in his eastern empire. The geography of empire always includes a gulf of hypocrisy between the metropolis and the provinces.

The western Roman Empire lasted five centuries and became the template for the modern European empires. Its eastern, Byzantine heir endured for another millennium, until Constantinople fell in 1453. Yet Rome’s emperors, Mr. Lieven suggests, struggled at the basic task of succession. When Diocletian (284-305 CE) upgraded the emperor from first citizen to divine autocrat, living up to the image “put an extra strain” on an emperor. Add the intriguing of the Praetorian Guard, and the Romans got through 53 emperors in 311 years: not much different to the election cycles of the American republic, with their “never-ending” factional struggles. The Sassanids of Persia, founded in 224 CE, had 30 emperors in three centuries, and the British have had only a dozen monarchs since 1707. No wonder that the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, the most personal testimony left by a Roman emperor, advises Stoic endurance.

Russia’s Romanovs lasted three centuries, the Habsburgs nearly a millennium in various forms, but the Chinese are the long-distance champions: their first imperial dynasty, the Qin, was founded in 221 BCE. The unification of China under the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) led to “great economic advances and a superb flowering of Chinese literary and artistic high culture.” The second Tang emperor, Taizong, was “beyond question one of history’s greatest emperors,” combining military and administrative skills with a “flair for the dramatic, flamboyant gesture.” Like Marcus Aurelius, he bequeathed advice to his heirs.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym Review: A Modern Jane Austen

From The Wall Street Journal:

If you are familiar with the quiet little gems that are the novels of Barbara Pym, you may be surprised by the number and intensity of the writer’s love affairs—all doomed. Paula Byrne brings these mostly painful experiences to the fore in “The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym: A Biography” and shows how Pym wrung from them a brisk, coolly ironic view of the relations between men and women. Ms. Byrne, the author of two novels, as well as books, on Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh, among others, gives us a work that surpasses in length and detail the two previous book-length accounts of Pym’s life: the more discreet “A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym” (1990) by her friend, Hazel Holt, and “A Very Private Eye: An Autobiography in Diaries and Letters,” (1984) edited by Holt and Pym’s sister, Hilary. Perhaps we can hope that now, with this huge biography and with all Pym’s novels available in print, this master of the comedy of resignation will not disappear again—as she almost did during her own life.

Among the many relics of the buttoned-up past that the 1960s kicked to the gutter were the novels of Barbara Pym. To a big, brash, in-your-face era, they were sadly outmoded, smacking of postwar privation and preoccupied with spinsters, seasoned widows, paid companions, young curates and fortifying cups of tea. In addition to the novels’ seemingly obsolete outlook, the problem was also that Pym’s genius lay in her attention to what people mistakenly think of as trivialities—sharing a bathroom, attending scholarly lectures, darning the socks of another woman’s husband, eating spaghetti—the minor travails which, in fact, make up most of life’s substance. The novels’ bleak comedy and subtle wit were lost on an age that admired provocativeness over restraint and was deaf to irony.

Pym got the message in 1963. Already the author of six well-received novels, she sent the manuscript of her seventh to her longtime publisher, Jonathan Cape—only to receive a curt letter of rejection. It stunned her. “She had been, in her own words, ‘offloaded,’ ” writes Ms. Byrne. “And the men responsible had not bothered to give her the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting or a telephone call. It was the most cowardly and cruellest of rejections and it affected her for a long, long time.” She tried other publishers with no success and so began what Pym called her “wilderness years.”

. . . .

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym was born in 1913 in Oswestry, Shropshire, in the west of England, the first child of Frederic Crampton Pym, a solicitor, and his wife, Irena. Her sister, Hilary, was born three years later; the sisters were very close and set up house together in later life. In 1931 Pym went up to St Hilda’s College, Oxford, where she studied English and embarked on a number of infatuations, affairs and heartbreaks. She was remarkably ahead of her time in sexual liberation (“I can’t help choosing my underwear with a view to its being seen”) and, as Ms. Byrne shows, men were central to her life. She courted their attention, slept with them, typed for them and mended their clothes: Being without a man, she wrote years later, was a “nice lump of misery which goes everywhere like a dog.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

My Life in Crime

From CrimeReads:

One sunny weekend twenty-five years ago, during a crime writing conference at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, I chatted with a fellow British author. This was Andrew Taylor, a novelist equally at home with writing contemporary fiction as with producing his multi-award-winning historical mysteries. Andrew and I were discussing Julian Symons’ classic study of the genre, Bloody Murder (known in the US as Mortal Consequences), which we both admired. Knowing of my lifelong interest in the heritage of crime writing, Andrew urged me to have a go at writing a book that would, in effect, be a modern version of Symons’ masterpiece.

At that time, I liked the idea, but it seemed like a pipe-dream. My career as a crime novelist was still in its early stages and it made sense to prioritize fiction. Yet I’ve been a fan of the genre for as long as I’ve wanted to be a crime novelist. In those long ago days, I kept a card index with notes on favorite books, authors, and topics. I’d written plenty of articles about the genre as well as reviews and I’d contributed essays to several reference books. I liked the idea of writing a book of my own about the genre, but my thinking was vague. But I never forgot that conversation with Andrew.

One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed taking part in crime festivals is that not only do I relish the company of fellow crime writers, I am fascinated by the nature of the crime writing life. Before I achieved my dream of having a novel published, I could never understand why so many established authors simply retire from the fray. After I talked to experienced novelists, and gained an insight into the ups and downs of literary life, I began to see why even apparently successful writers sometimes experience doubts about their work, or even downright demoralization. The reasons include financial pressures and changing literary fashions, but there are plenty of others. It’s a privileged life to be a published author; nevertheless, challenges abound.

I was lucky, in that I had a separate career as a partner in a law firm, so I felt I could write books that I believed in rather than those that a publisher wanted me to write. And I gave talks, as I do to this day, about ‘My Life in Crime’. In the 1990s, I focused on my juggling of two distinct careers. And I found that readers were interested, as they are interested in the lives of all writers whose books they appreciate. This set me thinking.

A decade or so passed, and I started work on the book that became The Golden Age of Murder, in essence a study of mysteries from the 1930s during the first years of the Detection Club, of which Symons was once President. My agent, whose support had been invaluable, felt such a book wouldn’t sell and that I’d do better to concentrate on fiction. But I kept working at it, and when it was finally ready to be submitted, her successor in the agency managed to persuade HarperCollins to take it. The book did far better than I’d ever dared to hope. Soon I was casting my mind back to that conversation with Andrew…

As a result, I’ve found a pleasing way to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first edition of Bloody Murder. My own history of crime fiction is about to be published, again by HarperCollins. In truth, seven years have passed since I signed a contract for The Life of Crime: Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators. So what took me so long?

Well, the history of our genre is a huge subject. You only need to glance at the essays on CrimeReads to see that. Tens of thousands of mysteries must have been written since Bloody Murder first appeared, and in any event, I wanted to cover more ground than Symons did, taking in film, radio, TV, the theatre, and true crime as well as fiction. I also aimed to travel around the world, talking about (for instance) the Far East and South America, as well as the Anglophone. Nor did I want to neglect issues of difference and diversity.

What’s more, I aimed to explore the notion of the ‘life of crime’, in one sense by writing a sort of biography of this type of writing, in another by glancing at the rollercoaster lives of some of the most interesting crime writers. I hoped to convey a sense (paradoxical as it may seem for stories concerned with sudden death) of the sheer vivacity of this branch of fiction. And I was keen to pursue one of my hobby-horses, the connections that unite authors—however varied their style or subject—from different eras, different countries and different backgrounds. Where is the common ground to be found? That’s a question that I keep coming back to.

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

Some languages pay closer attention to family ties than others

From The Economist

“Merry christmas from the Family”, a country song by Robert Earl Keen released in 1994, tells the tale of a sprawling festive get-together, replete with champagne punch, carol-singing and turkey. Many listeners will recognise the chaos the narrator describes; even more than that, they may identify with his struggle to recall how he is related to the various guests. “Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen,” Mr Keen croons. “Can’t remember how I’m kin to them.”

That may have something to do with the English language. It is often joked that anyone around your age is a “cousin”, regardless of actual relation, and anyone older is an “uncle” or “aunt”. English is rather bare in its terms for family members. Other languages pay far more attention to the details.

Take “brother” and “sister”. Societies that value age-order highly often have different terms for older brother, older sister, younger brother and younger sister. These are gejie, di and mei in Mandarin (usually doubled in speech, as in didi), or ani, ane, ototo, imoto in Japanese. Though generic alternatives exist for certain situations (like the abstract concept of “siblings”), not specifying a specific person’s seniority in these languages would be odd.

Then take marriage relations. English just adds the rather cold -in-law to refer to a relationship through a spouse. French has the rather warmer beau- or belle- (belle-mère for mother-in-law, beau-frère for brother-in-law, and so on), but at least it means “beautiful” rather than implying a bureaucratic shackle.

Other European languages have distinct words for the many different relatives by marriage. A Spanish-learner must memorise cuñado/cuñadayernonuera, and suegro/suegra for brother-/sister-, son-, daughter- and father-/mother-in-law (the terms are similar in Portuguese). Spanish even distinguishes cuñado (brother-in-law by blood relation to your spouse) from concuñado, your spouse’s sibling’s husband—something like “co-brother-in-law”. It also has the term cuñadismo, brother-in-law-ism, or talking about things you know little about as though you were an authority—the phrase is akin to “mansplaining” in English.

. . . .

Finally, it is a curious fact that English lacks a word to describe the crucial relationship between the parents of a married couple. Hebrew and Yiddish, though, have mehutanim and machatunim, and Spanish offers consuegros for this critical relationship. Anglophones, meanwhile, are forced to say something awkward like “my son’s wife’s parents”.

The focus that some cultures put on labelling every possible relation with a distinct term does not mean that those who lack those terms do not pay heed to familial networks. Every English-speaking family seems to have at least one armchair genealogist who can tell you that Henry Ford was a great-great-great uncle or fourth cousin five times removed. But each family also has members who couldn’t care less, waving a hand and saying “uncle” or “cousin”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

The Red Prince

From The Wall Street Journal:

John of Gaunt is among the best-known figures from medieval England. One reason is the speech that Shakespeare gives him in “Richard II,” a hymn to England itself: “This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, / This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, / This other Eden, demi-paradise.” Who, in history, was the man we know mostly from his eloquence on stage?

Shakespeare calls Gaunt “time-honoured Lancaster,” a reference to the duchy that he acquired as the result of the first of his three marriages. The liaison made him, as Duke of Lancaster, the richest nobleman in 14th-century England. He was also royal-born, the third (surviving) son of Edward III and the brother of Edward, the heir apparent, who died too young to assume the throne. Edward was called the Black Prince—no one is quite sure why, perhaps it was an allusion to the color of his armor. Helen Carr’s fascinating biography of John of Gaunt is called “The Red Prince,” a coinage meant to refer, presumably, to the heraldic red rose associated with the House of Lancaster.

As Ms. Carr reminds us, England’s 14th century was turbulent, to say the least. Two kings—Gaunt’s grandfather Edward II and his nephew Richard II—were deposed and then murdered in prison. England was intermittently at war with France. The bubonic plague—the Black Death—killed at least a third of the English population. A violent peasants’ revolt erupted.

Other aspects of the period were less disturbing. Most notably, English gradually replaced French as the language of the governing class, leading to the first flowering of English literature: Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” and Langland’s “Piers Plowman.” Chaucer, a government official, would become, late in life, John of Gaunt’s brother-in-law.

Maturity came early in those days. At the age of 15, Gaunt was serving in France alongside the Black Prince, who was “without doubt,” Ms. Carr says, Gaunt’s “role model.” Gaunt shared the glory of his brother’s victory at Poitiers, one of the few decisive pitched battles of the war, which was otherwise a matter of sieges and plundering raids. Exhaustion led to a treaty and a temporary peace, but war soon broke out again. By the late 1360s, the health of the Black Prince was in decline, and the king himself, Edward III, was drifting into senility. John of Gaunt became, of necessity, the pillar of the regime. He was loyal, rich and capable.

Even so, his task was formidable and at times beyond even his capacities. The taxation required to finance the French war was immensely unpopular. In 1371, Parliament became assertive, attacking the government for corruption and inefficiency. To appease the Commons, the old king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, was banished from court. According to Ms. Carr, Gaunt “was furious that the king’s dirty laundry had been aired before Parliament.” The Black Prince died in June of that year, the king a year later. The new king, Richard II, was still a child, and discontent seethed.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

New Look, Same Great Look

From Lapham’s Quarterly:

Color is among the most challenging aspects of our experience to describe. Spectrophotometers and colorimeters can quantify light waves, yet their measurements have little impact on our feeling for color. As the philosopher Zeno Vendler put it, “Vincent van Gogh loved the color yellow—and certainly not because of its wavelength.” Color is infamous for its variability in language and perception. How can we know that what we are seeing is the same as what someone else sees? How can we separate what we are seeing from the thing itself? Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein asked in his Remarks on Colour, “Where do we draw the line here between logic and experience?” In the Remarks, written the year before his death in 1951, the philosopher’s thoughts about color invariably lead back to the study of philosophy. What things are knowable? How are they known? What can be determined through philosophical reasoning? Wittgenstein reflected, “Colors are a stimulus to philosophizing.”

Color can reveal the variety of experience in a way that few other subjects can. Vision, whether described in language or represented in paintings or film or virtual reality, is the quotidian version of locked-in syndrome. In literature and poetry, the personal nature of color perception often serves as a metaphor for other sweeping failures of communication. In everyday conversations, those stumbling, destabilizing references to a blue sweater (it’s actually black) or a green car (it’s blue, in fact) are both forgettable and earth-shattering. For some philosophers, the experience of color is most similar to that of pain: an internal state that resists quantification. But who wouldn’t rather philosophize about azure instead of aches and pains?

In the Remarks, Wittgenstein briefly considered color in photography, though he was quick to note that his example was “not a color photograph.” For someone born in 1889, color photography was still an exception to the rule. Wittgenstein describes but does not name an image of a scene in a machine shop. In it, he saw “a man with dark hair and a boy with slicked-back blond hair standing in front of a kind of lathe, which is made in part of castings painted black.” “What does it mean,” he asks, “that hair looks blond in a photograph?” He identifies several types of metal in the shop—the painted castings, galvanized wire, iron, and zinc, which all seem truthfully represented by shades of gray in the photograph. But the blond hair confounds him: “How does it come out that it looks this way as opposed to our simply concluding that this is its color?” Wittgenstein seems to immediately perceive color in the black-and-white photograph, rather than logically deducing that the light-toned hair must be blond.

For Wittgenstein’s younger readers, color photography was fast becoming the norm. A 1956 color film booklet enthused: “The lifelike beauty, the realism, the high-fidelity color quality that you get with your camera and Anscochrome Film will give you endless satisfaction. For you will not only record but actually reproduce and re-create the original beauty and sparkle of the subject in the finest form for future enjoyment.” As color photographic processes proliferated so, too, did boosters’ praise for them. The most common descriptors were “natural” or “lifelike,” despite the obvious differences in color rendition between film stocks. Kodachrome appears blocky to contemporary viewers, offering a limited dynamic range and low contrast. Fujifilm is known for its vivid greens. Polaroid instant color prints can seem milky and unsharp. All were touted as “natural.”

Photographers’ studios have added color to photographs by hand since the medium’s earliest days. Three of the first five U.S. patents related to photography described methods to add color to the monochrome process. Painters employed by photography studios added everything from a subtle blush tint to the lips and cheeks or dabs of gold to jewelry to create radically overpainted images. While the public apparently clamored for colored photographs, critics were unconvinced. Their most common charge was that by painting over the image, less skilled photographers could cover up their errors—and the truth of the original photograph.

Photo taken about 1850, original in the Museum of Modern Art

In comparison, mechanical color processes promised to amplify photography’s authenticity. They did not rely on the artist’s hand to add color after the fact. Some mechanical color processes, such as the French Autochrome, were available to professionals in the early twentieth century. But color photography became a widespread possibility only in the mid-1930s with the invention of Kodachrome film, first made available for 16 mm motion pictures in 1935 and for 35 mm still cameras the following year. Technicolor film stock was introduced in 1932. It was critically praised in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, which used the transition from black-and-white to color film to dramatize the shift from Dorothy’s reality in Kansas to the fantastical world of Oz. Technicolor, with its vibrant, highly saturated colors, was celebrated as better than the real thing.

Kodachrome and other films designed for the still photography market instead claimed faithfulness to reality. One very early instruction manual promised that “the introduction of Kodachrome has placed in the hands of the nonprofessional user a color medium which will reproduce color with almost perfect fidelity.” A spate of how-to books accompanied the new technology, offering instructions on everything from exposure and printing to “how to see color.” These included warnings about using “color for color’s sake” or including so many colorful elements in the frame that it became, in one Kodak editor’s words, “a veritable ‘color hash.’ ” Another author cautioned against making a very specific, but apparently ubiquitous, picture: “We are not particularly interested in a beautiful girl clad in a brilliant red bathing suit playing with an equally brilliant blue, yellow, and green beachball.”

Professional photographers remained skeptical of color film. In instructional guides, they qualified the manufacturers’ claims about natural color. A photographer for the American Museum of Natural History explained in 1941 that Kodachrome “has no subjective reactions. What it sees is not colored by previous knowledge or experience. When the color film sees grass, it doesn’t insist, as we are so apt to, that all grass is green. It may see brown grass or blue grass or other colors that look all wrong to us in the processed film.” Notable photographers, including Berenice Abbott and Louis Stettner, also took care to point out that humans and film “see” color differently. Abbott suggested that some of the difference lay in our past experiences: “When we judge the color photograph, we not only think of how the subject looked in nature, but we also remember how painters throughout the centuries have rendered similar objects. The color photograph has to satisfy a double standard—fidelity to real life and a recognizable approximation to traditional art.” These caveats beg the question: Which color is natural? What we’ve trained ourselves to see or what is out there in the world?

By the 1960s color film dominated the amateur market as well as the movies. Color negative film became available for Kodak’s easy-to-use Instamatic camera in 1963; Polaroid debuted instant color prints the same year. Snapshots in color offered a broad swath of viewers some of their first apparently objective experiences of light, uninfluenced by the brain’s adjustments. The new film, which was initially color balanced for daylight, could not make the perceptual changes that we do when we see objects in different types of light. We think of an apple as being the same color whether we look at it on a tree or on display in a grocery store. When asked to draw an apple, a child will seldom stop to inquire where that apple appears: Indoors or out? Under warm or cool light? But, as physicists will eagerly tell you, color is merely the product of reflected light. An apple doesn’t possess the color red; it reflects red wavelengths while absorbing others. We see the reflected light. But which colors are reflected is also determined by which colors are present in the light. Film prepared to respond to the color temperature of bright sunlight (6500 Kelvin) makes the lower temperatures of incandescent lights appear orange, while fluorescent bulbs render the scene markedly green. An apple is never simply red.

. . . .

Although the changing colors of sunlight had been amplified by Impressionist painters of the late nineteenth century—think of Monet’s snowy haystacks in periwinkle dawn or the Aperol orange of his Rouen Cathedral at sunset—these strange visions now began appearing in amateur snapshots. A 1962 Kodak manual recommended the warm tones of sunset and sunrise for dramatic landscapes but cautioned that they were inappropriate for portraits. The reddish light would render the family like a pot of “boiled lobsters,” according to the author, evidently thinking only of the effect on light skin tones. Similarly, the popular how-to author Fred Bond wrote of photographing during those forbidden hours, “If flesh tones appear badly ‘sunburned,’ do not blame Kodachrome. It recorded what it saw.” During this period color film privileged not only bright, white sunlight but also white skin. Kodak film labs and at-home printers used a company-provided color chart that featured a photograph of a white model, designating white skin as “normal.” Owing to the limited tonal range of color film at the time, when photographers exposed and developed for the light end of the spectrum, darker tones fell into shadow, leaving no detail or tonal gradations.

. . . .

Long before the invention of photography, natural scientists, artists, and craftspeople had struggled to communicate about color. Although Japanese artists had been creating multicolor woodblock prints since the mid-eighteenth century, printing in the West largely relied on a secondary process of hand coloring until the rise of chromolithography in the late nineteenth century. Some disciplines, such as heraldry, established notational systems to specify color in monochromatic prints. Engravers used different styles of hash marks to indicate the colors used in coats of arms. Sometimes engravings and woodblock prints were colored by teams of colorists before their sale, but others were colored by their owners, according to their own preferences or interpretations.

Top: Perspective Print (Uki-e) of the Theaters in Sakaichō and Fukiyachō on Opening Night, by Utagawa Toyoharu, c. 1780. Bottom: Plate IX from Choix de Coquillages et de Crustacés, by Franz Michael Regenfuss and Margaretha Helena Regenfuss, 1758. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Link to the rest at Lapham’s Quarterly

PG notes that any photographer who takes more than a handful of photos has had the experience of being disappointed because the colors in the photo are not those the photographer saw when she/he pressed the shutter button.

PG couldn’t resist linking to Paul Simon’s Kodachrome.

Mimi Reinhard typed up Schindler’s list

From The Economist:

Sometime in the early autumn of 1944 Mimi Weitmann, as she then was, added her name to a list. She thought she would take the risk. Unfortunately she had to use the horrible first name, Carmen, which her opera-loving father had given her; “Mimi”, from “La Bohème”, was the much nicer nickname they settled on later. Sadly, too, she had to add the surname of her dead husband, Yozsi Weitmann, her love since university, who had been shot by the Germans at the gate of the Krakow ghetto as he had tried to escape.

That had happened in 1942. She had been widowed in her 20s, left with a baby son, Sasha, whom she and Yozsi had managed to smuggle to Hungary with her grandmother. She was very uncertain when, or even whether, she would see either of them again. As she typed “Carmen Weitmann”, there seemed to be nothing left of herself. Her old life as carefree Mimi, in a Vienna where Jews were integrated and the word “Aryan” unnecessary, was too long ago and far away. She was now in a blank place, among the dead.

At least she was no longer in the ghetto, which had been liquidated anyway, with those too ill or old to work simply shot in the street. She was in the Plaszow labour camp, to which most of Krakow’s Jews had now been moved. There were horrors in Plaszow, too: a small child killed for refusing to take off his clothes, the digging of a mass-grave which was also meant to be hers. But she was given a relatively sheltered desk-job because, being Austrian, her German was perfect, and because she had learned shorthand from a stenography course. Not that these were much use for taking down and typing up—as she was tasked to—a list that eventually ran to 1,200 names.

The list had been growing for a while. At first it had around 1,000 names, those of the Jews who worked in Oskar Schindler’s German Enamel Factory in Krakow. Then it got longer. It was added to by Mietek Pemper, secretary to Amon Goeth, the vicious camp commandant, and by Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s accountant. Then Schindler himself (and his wife) contributed yet more, the relatives and friends of his employees and, it seemed, anyone he could think of. She typed them up as he asked her. In the end there were at least seven versions, possibly even nine, and her job was to make each one presentable.

Every name was Jewish (with “Ju.” typed before it), even though Schindler was not. These were meant to be essential workers in his factory, which he was going to move from Plaszow (where it had moved from Krakow) westward to Brünnlitz, in his native Sudetenland, and repurpose to make arms. But as Mimi typed the date-of-birth column she could see there were children on it, and as she typed the “skills” column she could spot photographers and rabbis among the metalworkers, so something else was clearly going on. Even her own qualification, Schreibkraft, “typist”, looked odd, especially as she added it with two slow fingers. Typing was something she had never learned.

She did not have much direct contact with Schindler, but liked him as a boss. He was charming and outgoing, and treated his Jewish workers kindly, not like scum. Perhaps even too kindly, for he was a great womaniser, with several pretty secretaries besides her, and got into trouble once for kissing a Jewish girl on the cheek at his birthday party. Maybe she was there because he liked her cool blonde elegance, rather than her mind. She knew, too, that he was very rich, and struck deals with the Nazi high-ups all the time by bribing them with black-market luxuries to get better conditions and more food for “his” Jews, as he called them. But that sounded patronising as well as protective, as if they were just cogs in his factory, since Jewish slave-labour was cheap. She also could not forget that he was a thoroughgoing Nazi, an ss man, who sometimes spent whole nights carousing with the officers.

In short, her boss was no angel. And there was something chilling about the list, with its constant repetition of number, race, name, skill. Perhaps he did not mean to save “his” Jews after all, but simply move them to another camp, a fatal one. His closeness to Goeth, though it was tactical, was worrying. Some people, she knew, had refused to let their names be put on the list for those reasons. She decided, though, that she would trust him. She added her name partly to be useful to him, by swelling the numbers. Then she added three friends as well.

That was a gamble, and for one terrifying moment she seemed to have bet the wrong way. Three hundred of the women and girls on the list, including her, were transferred by mistake to Auschwitz, where they endured two weeks that reminded her (from her language-and-literature studies) of Dante’s “Inferno”. With even more bribery, and threats too, Schindler got them out. In the end the list and the transfers worked, and everyone was saved.

She restarted her life then, moving to Morocco, marrying Albert Reinhard, reclaiming her son and settling first in New York, which she loved, and then in her 90s in Israel. Of the time with Schindler, and the list, she said little or nothing over those years. When Steven Spielberg’s film appeared in 1993 she was invited, with the other Schindlerjuden, to the premiere, but left before the screening. The memory was still too fresh. When at last she felt able to see it, she approved of the casting but not of the prisoners. They were too well-dressed, not demeaned in rags.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Ms. Reinhard died on April 22, 2022, in Israel, at the age of 107.

Additional obituaries can be found in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson”? On the Novelistic Universe of Edith Wharton

From The Literary Hub:

Like William Faulkner or Thomas Hardy, and not unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Edith Wharton loved some milieus too much for just one story. In its setting and characters, The Old Maid is quintessential Wharton, the New York-born author who wrote fifteen novels and novellas and became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Today she is most closely identified with the upper-class, hermetically sealed New York of her childhood and young adulthood, which she sharply indicted in The House of Mirth (1905) and satirized more gently in The Age of Innocence (1920).

Few realize that she wrote even more stories set in Gilded Age Manhattan. Indeed, Wharton summoned up the lost world of her childhood almost compulsively as an adult, long after she resettled as an expatriate in France. Edith Newbold Jones was born in 1862 into a grand New York family related to the Astors and van Rensselaers. As a novelist, she was a late bloomer. She wrote a number of poems and stories during her itinerant childhood in the U.S. and Europe, but her work was sidelined by her society debut at age seventeen and, a few years later, a long and miserable marriage with a Boston Brahmin named Teddy Wharton.

. . . .

The Old Maid, first published in 1924, was part of a four-novella collection called Old New York, which dedicates a story to each decade from the 1840s through the 1870s. They are set among the same mercantile elite of Dutch and English families as is The Age of Innocence, and their casts of characters sport familiar surnames like Archer and Van Degen, creating a sort of Yoknapatawpha on the Hudson. The Old Maid takes place a generation before the famous 1870s love triangle among Newland Archer, Ellen Olenska, and May Welland.

A couple of minor characters have roles in both novella and novel: Mrs. Manson Mingott is a convention-defying aunt instead of a convention-defying grandmother, and Sillerton Jackson, The Age of Innocence’s gossip-loving old man, is prefigured as The Old Maid’s bachelor-about-town.

And yet these surface similarities are a little misleading. The exquisite drama of The Age of Innocence revolves, above all, around characters yearning to be free: free from their custom-bound society, and free to follow passion over duty. “Women ought to be free—as free as we are,” Newland proclaims. His love interest, Countess Olenska, is equally given to statements like, “I want to be free; I want to wipe out all the past.” Of course, they can’t be free in those ways, and Wharton ultimately breaks up the would-be lovers with stylish, genteel, epigrammatic finality.

The word “free” never appears in The Old Maid. Its two main characters, Delia Ralston and Charlotte Lovell, don’t want to be free from their imbroglio, their society, or each other. Their predicament is a thorny one – and rather more risqué than what one might expect of this author in this milieu. (The Ladies Home Journal politely rejected the story for being “a bit too vigorous;” it was only published after the success of Innocence.) Charlotte has an illegitimate baby with an artistic dilettante and can’t bring herself to abandon the child to an orphanage. She pleads with her wealthy, married, older cousin, Delia, to support baby Tina, which she agrees to do—if, and only if, Charlotte breaks off her high-society engagement to become the titular old maid. To top it off, the father of Charlotte’s child was once the (chaste) love of Delia’s life.

The novella spans twenty years, from Charlotte’s pregnancy to the eve of Tina’s marriage. Delia and Charlotte each have intense maternal feelings for Tina: one biological but secret and the other based on both affectionate proximity and long-ago passion.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Memorial Day

From History.com:

Memorial Day is an American holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, honoring the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. Memorial Day 2022 will occur on Monday, May 30.

Originally known as Decoration Day, it originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings and participating in parades. Unofficially, it marks the beginning of the summer season.

. . . .

The Civil War, which ended in the spring of 1865, claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and required the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries.

By the late 1860s, Americans in various towns and cities had begun holding springtime tributes to these countless fallen soldiers, decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers.

It is unclear where exactly this tradition originated; numerous different communities may have independently initiated the memorial gatherings. And some records show that one of the earliest Memorial Day commemorations was organized by a group of formerly enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina less than a month after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865.

. . . .

Decoration Day

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for Northern Civil War veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance later that month. “The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land,” he proclaimed.

. . . .

On the first Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery, and 5,000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 Civil War soldiers buried there.

Many Northern states held similar commemorative events and reprised the tradition in subsequent years; by 1890 each one had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states, on the other hand, continued to honor the dead on separate days until after World War I.

Link to the rest at History.com

Promote Your Book with Your Values

From Jane Friedman:

Like many authors, I had a book to promote during the COVID-19 pandemic and still today each one of us faces the threat of illness and too little bandwidth for a promotional blitz. Shilling our wares can be draining, so I decided to ask the unreasonable from my book promotion: that it give me something back.

At first this felt like a short cut. I was juggling Long-COVID, a full-time job, and the raising of a teen, so it seemed necessary to do what made me happy rather than adding to my exhaustion. I realized, looking back on past events, that the way to gain energy from book promotion is to focus on my values.

I’ll admit that this awareness started somewhat by accident. During the long promotion for a book of essays on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, I was asked to do a few workshops for people with chronic pain hosted by nonprofit organizations. As I enjoy teaching and interacting with workshop participants, I knew how to promote and prep for these events. Unlike a reading, where I often feel like I’m begging audience members to sit passively and listen to me for an hour, a class felt like a dialogue, a chance to connect, even if it was on Zoom.

Then I started to think about the numbers. As an author, I’ve experienced the discomfort of an in-person reading with two people in the audience, both of whom are bookstore employees. The time invested in planning a reading—never mind the task of getting a bookstore to agree to host a university press author—rarely offered meaningful returns in terms of book sales or visibility.

When I began to offer free workshops with writing prompts built around my book’s theme, my audience counts were ten times what I’d been able to pull in for a reading. Plus, the focus shifted from “me” to “us”: I got a chance to interact and be spontaneous, to read and hear writing from participants, to dialogue about questions that emerged from writing prompts, and even to do some writing myself.

So when I had my next book to promote—an essayistic memoir about a single day in my life (Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day)—I thought up a format for online classes that allowed participants to write and share on what had happened to them that very day. These “Day-Ins” ended up providing moments of calm focus amid our anxious pandemic lives and were, even over Zoom, a great social bonding activity.

This doesn’t mean that every book promotion event needs to be a class. Instead, I realized, I wanted to do book events that do double duty, that allow me to align the things I care about with the time I spend on promotion. My personal values include community engagement, but they also include a wide array of causes from disability rights to racial justice to the environment.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

PG recognizes that, for the author of the OP, there is more than a little desire to evangelize her discoveries and improve the lot of humanity in general.

While PG doesn’t doubt that the gatherings and classes described in the OP were an enjoyable experience for the participants and are certainly a twist on the typical book tour, he wonders whether this is the best use of quite a few hours and more than a bit of energy by an author.

How many potential purchasers of the author’s books were reached? Yes, PG is certain that at least some of the attendees told their friends about the experience and some of those friends purchased the book, but what is the best use of an author’s time these days?

The online classes were certainly more productive than an old-fashioned if-this-is-Tuesday-I-must-be-in-Baltimore book tour for traditional bookstores, but it still took a lot of time.

PG’s assessment would be somewhat different if the Zoom classes had been recorded, then put online where anyone could access them. If he missed that in the OP, he apologizes for his oversight.

His point is that an author only has so much time and energy to expend during a day, week, month, year, and he suspects that, for many authors, that time and energy might be best focused on writing another high-quality book.

But, as usual, PG could be mistaken.

The Sad Young Literary Man Is Now a Middle-Aged Dad Keith Gessen wrote a memoir about family life. His wife, Emily Gould, is mostly okay with that.

From New York magazine:

Raffi Gessen-Gould, age 6, is an expert on these topics: Greek gods, international currency exchange, sharks, geology, when his father will go bald (when Raffi is a teenager), invisibility cloaks, waffles, slingshotting stretchy rubber snakes across the living room, making slime without his mom, and the benefits of getting slime stains on the couch (they feel good to touch). He is the second-tallest kid in his class. He can jump the farthest. He sleeps on the top bunk. The longest book he has ever read is 199 pages. He has not read his father’s new book, Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, which is 241 pages, and he does not seem in any hurry to do so. He did ask if he was responsible for the bad crayon drawing on the cover. (No.)

This Raffi — the real-life Raffi — will turn 7 in early June. The character Raffi in Raising Raffi will never be that mature. That Raffi is a creation of his father, Keith Gessen, a device through which Gessen explores his parental fixations: the pros and cons of teaching a child Russian or making a child play hockey, the problem of gentrifying schools, and conflicting camps of parenting advice. Raffi the literary creation is a bit of a hooligan — or, as his father puts it, a collection of “pain points.” That Raffi spends a lot of time doing stuff like punching his father in the nose and breaking down toddler gates to get into his parents’ bed at 2 a.m. That Raffi wonders what it’s like to sit on his infant brother Ilya’s head and follows through. Raffi the real person has outgrown all that now.

One recent Saturday evening, after his father opened the door to the 990-square-foot Brooklyn apartment Raffi and Keith share with the writer Emily Gould (Raffi’s mother and Keith’s wife) and Ilya, now 3, I asked Raffi how he felt about a book coming out with his name in the title.

He’s not a kid who limits his answers to areas in which he possesses expertise. “I don’t know,” he said.

Words are the family business. Gessen, 47, was a co-founder of the literary magazine n+1 and has published two novels. Thirteen years ago, Vanity Fair called him the “red-hot center to the Brooklyn literary scene,” or “at least close to it.” Gould, 40, has published two novels and a book of nonfiction, though she’s best known for her work at the media-gossip website Gawker, where her funny, confessional writing helped define the voice of the early-aughts internet. The two very publicly hooked up in 2007, not long after Gould described for Gawker’s audience Gessen bartending at an n+1 party with “tufts of black chest hair peeking from the unbuttoned collar of his American Apparel polo.”

Link to the rest at New York magazine

The publisher of the book, Viking, has not seen fit to set up Look Inside on Amazon, (because, maybe, their brains have melted due to Hatred-of-Amazon-Burnout or some underpaid and overworked temp assistant didn’t do the listing right or piracy or some Uber-Big-Shot in Europe believes no one should look inside a book before they have purchased it) but PG will override his initial impulse not to show a Kindle cover link because he liked the cover.

Observant visitors to TPVx will also note that there’s no Buy button on the big, eye-catching image of the cover below, so PG inserted a Buy Button of his own creation below the lovely cover photo.

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Don’t Boycott Amazon

From The Nation:

fter years of dominating American capitalism by grinding workers into the dust, Amazon is on a hot losing streak, and it’s absolutely invigorating to watch. If the Amazon Labor Union had only organized workers in a blowout vote on Staten Island, it would’ve been enough. And if Amazon had only spent $4.3 million fighting them just to fail, it would’ve been enough. But, dayenu! A judge also just threw out the company’s motion to dismiss a case of race- and gender-based discrimination filed by a corporate worker, too!

Except it’s not actually enough.

Until a few weeks ago, the last time I bought anything on Amazon was in 2017. Then my vet told me that I had to get special diagnostic strips to monitor the sugar content of my cat’s urine (long story). When I asked her if I could just buy them at my local pharmacy, she sent me a link to Amazon, where I could get them delivered in two days for $16. I clicked. Immediately, I felt the anger and guilt that comes with trying to be a person of conscience in a culture of pathological convenience. And I felt foolish for imagining that ethical consumerism can do anything other than temporarily assuage those feelings. The fact that The New York Times uses Amazon Web Services—something it’s disclosed while also publishing exposés about Amazon’s atrocious labor practices—doesn’t stop me from reading the paper of record. Zephyr Teachout calls it the “too big to boycott” trap in her most recent book, Break ’Em Up: Recovering Our Freedom From Big Ag, Big Tech, and Big Money. Beyond being futile, she writes, symbolically avoiding mega-­corporations is also masturbatory: “The ‘vote with your feet’ model has a lot of appeal, in that it allows people to import virtuousness into their lives without the struggle of organizing and building a coalition.”

Chris Smalls, who was fired by Amazon following his organizing efforts in Staten Island, has done that hard work. That includes appearing on Tucker Carlson’s show to speak to the masses of old white people mainlining the signature Fox blend of racism and Reaganomics, a move that was seen as controversial by some on the left. Charlotte Newman—the head of Underrepresented Founder Startup Business Development at AWS—tried to do the work when she sent memos and e-mails to corporate leadership outlining the steps Amazon could take to address the discrimination she faced as a Black woman in the workplace. No one ever responded to her, but David Zapolsky, the same executive who’s presumably lived to regret calling Smalls “not smart or articulate,” sent an e-mail to Amazon employees inviting them to call his cell phone and tell him how it feels to be Black in America. Derp.

Even though she’s now suing the company, Newman told me, she doesn’t recommend a boycott. “There’s this idea—could an organization be so corrupt that people shouldn’t seek employment or work with it? But I don’t see Amazon through that lens. Given the size of the company and gridlock in Congress, I don’t think we’ll see a space where Amazon ceases to exist. The more likely change that we’ll see is if consumers ask more of the company. Amazon is customer-obsessed, and I think if customers start to ask more questions about Amazon’s practices, that would move the needle more than anything.”

Walking away isn’t an option for Newman either. The first in her family to attend an Ivy League school, she told me how proud her parents were when she got a job offer from Amazon. She loved working in public service for people like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, but she also felt selfish for not pursuing a career that would better support her family. So, encouraged by management, she took the job even though it was lower-level than the one she had applied for, learning only later about the dramatic pay disparity between her and her white peers with similar qualifications. As soon as she assumed the role, she encountered shocking levels of discrimination, which left her wondering how she could spend her weekends marching for Black lives and then keep her head down during the week: “I’ve tried to keep working through the comments, low[er] pay [than white peers], being promoted slower, through the harassment. But who am I if I don’t say anything?” In essence: how to be a person of conscience at Amazon? After exhausting the internal remedies, she finally sought counsel and filed a 63-page federal complaint that details Amazon’s total disregard for equity in favor of showboating social media posts.

Link to the rest at The Nation

PG didn’t realize The Nation was still around. It’s been decades since he’s read anything from the magazine.

The OP reminds him why he hasn’t checked to see if that enterprise is still in existence or not.

PG won’t get into politics, but, suffice to say, in the United States, many unions have become very corrupt, at times associating with organized crime.

From The United States Department of Justice:

Historically, organized criminal groups such as La Cosa Nostra or the Mafia gained substantial corrupt influence, and even control, over labor unions by creating a climate of fear and intimidation among employers and union members by threats and acts of violence. Working the United States Attorney’s Offices, the Labor-Management Racketeering Unit in OCGS has assisted criminal prosecution and civil RICO lawsuits to eliminate such corrupt influence and control of labor unions and their affiliated organizations. As of 2020, the United States had obtained relief in 24 civil RICO cases involving labor organizations affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the Laborers International Union of North American (LIUNA), the former Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HEREIU), and the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA).

During the period from 2017 to 2021, the Labor-Management Racketeering Unit worked with the United States Attorney’s Office in Detroit to charge and obtain guilty pleas from the Fiat-Chrysler Association (FCA), officials of the FCA, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union involving more than $3.5 million in illegal payments and gifts from the FCA to officials of the UAW. As a result of those and other guilty pleas involving abuse of union funds, the UAW agreed to be subject to court-approved officers as part of an anti-fraud consent decree directed at the removal of corruption within the UAW.

Link to the rest at The United States Department of Justice

It’s Too Late to Protect Your Genetic Privacy. The Math Explaining Why.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Earlier this year, the police in Eugene, Ore., said they had identified a serial killer who committed three murders from 1986 to 1988. The man, John Charles Bolsinger, had escaped attention so thoroughly for three decades because he had killed himself in 1988.

Investigators had stored DNA from the crimes, and recently plugged it into a genealogy database, zeroing in on Bolsinger by first finding his distant cousins. It is the latest in a growing string of cold cases solved by law enforcement using techniques developed by genealogy hobbyists. Take a DNA sample, identify a second cousin here, a third cousin there, and then use public records to reconstruct a killer’s family tree.

If you’re concerned about the privacy implications of this, you might think, “Well, I would never submit my DNA to one of those sites.”

Sounds reasonable? In fact, it is far too late to completely protect your genetic privacy via personal abstention. A brief exploration into the mathematics of genetics explains why it has become possible to track down killers—but also anyone—through distant relatives.

“If somebody wanted to use the skills of forensic genealogists to try to track you down through a third cousin, they could,” said Jennifer King, a privacy scholar at Stanford University.

To understand how exposed your genes potentially are, consider an obscure unit of measurement—the centiMorgan, or cM. (It is named for Thomas Hunt Morgan, whose experiments on fruit flies led to the Nobel Prize in 1933 for showing how chromosomes are inherited.) It lies at the heart of all the stories you read nowadays of people discovering unknown links through their DNA and genealogical research.

It gauges genetic distance, specifically the length of identical segments of DNA that two people share due to descent from a common ancestor.

In general, people have about 6,800 cMs. A child inherits half their DNA—one set of chromosomes—from each biological parent. So child and parent will have around 3,400 cMs of DNA that match.

(Because of slightly different methodologies, the major testing companies report slightly different numbers.)

For every “degree of relatedness,” the length of shared cMs halves. An uncle or grandparent, one degree removed from parents, shares half as much DNA on average. That is 25%, or about 1,700 cMs. One more degree removed: A first cousin or great-grandparent shares half again, or around 850 cMs. And so on.

How much DNA you share with distant relatives

Even with all these halvings, very distant relatives out to fifth cousins share so much identical DNA that a common ancestor is the only possible source.

“I think most Americans don’t realize this,” said Libby Copeland, author of “The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are.” “It’s a profound shift.”

It is easy to find distant relatives, because a typical individual has so many: according to various methods, around 200 third cousins, upward of 1,000 fourth cousins and anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 fifth cousins.

This isn’t just relevant for crime scenes. There is no such thing anymore as truly anonymous sperm or egg donors, unknown fathers, or closed adoptions. They are all examples of scenarios where secrets involving parentage are easily solved by the centiMorgans. No court ruling or confidentiality agreement can erase this science.

An adopted child who doesn’t know his biological parent still shares 3,400 cMs with that person, and hundreds of centiMorgans with numerous cousins from that parent’s family. The child, or generations from now that child’s descendants, could upload their DNA to a database and by looking for matches with others who have uploaded theirs, discover some of those distant cousins. That would be enough to reconstruct his family tree and identify the parent, even though the parent never uploaded their DNA—the exact same process used to identify DNA in cold cases.

Katie Hasson, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society, which advocates for protections against genetic information being abused, says that only collective action—not individual precaution—can address the privacy concerns this creates.

“Right now, forensic genealogy is very labor intensive and new, and being used for very serious crimes and cold cases,” said Ms. Hasson. “The likelihood it will be confined to that, without actual enforceable restrictions and regulations, is slim.”

The scale of testing is enormous: around 21 million samples on AncestryDNA, 12 million at 23andMe, 5.6 million at MyHeritage and 1.7 million at FamilyTreeDNA, according to data from the International Society of Genetic Genealogy.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

The Rise of Insta-Artists and Insta-Poets

From The Literary Hub:

In April 2014, Amalia Ulman, a recent art school graduate living in Los Angeles, started to upload images of herself to Instagram. Her first image, accompanied by the caption “Excellences & Perfections,” received twenty-eight likes. Over the coming months, Ulman continued to upload selfies documenting her semifictionalized makeover. Some of the images, like the one of her recovery from breast augmentation surgery, were pure fiction.

Others, including those taken at her pole-dancing lessons, reflected things she was actually doing as part of her self-transformation. Like millions of other young women who post selfies on Instagram, Ulman was using the platform to construct a semifictional narrative about herself. Unlike most young women, her carefully curated postings about her life would ultimately be embraced as art.

In a 2015 Art Review article, Eric Morse observed that in Ulman’s Instagram work, eventually titled Excellences & Perfections, “promises of voyeuristic spectacle and salacious confession ignited her account’s real-time fan base and drew mainstream coverage from pop culture glossies like New York Magazinei-D and Dazed and Confused.”

But according to Morse, Ulman didn’t just garner an online following during her durational performance on Instagram. “What continues to fascinate most about Ulman’s progressing oeuvre,” Morse observes, “is not only the vast conceptual net under which she interrogates theories of identity, domesticity and fantasy, but the challenging heterogeneity of disciplines and templates that she engages from exhibition to exhibition—from poetry to design to online performance.”

The critical reception of Ulman’s social media performance work hasn’t always been as positive as Morse’s laudatory review, but it has been copious, and in a content age, quantity is what matters. Ulman clearly understood this, which is why she felt compelled to start producing work about herself online in the first place. As she explained in a 2018 statement in Art Forum, “There is an expectation now that artists should be online and on social media promoting themselves, but that the promotion shouldn’t be the work per se. It felt like a requirement, especially as a woman, to expose oneself to sell the work in a way.”

Ulman’s decision to produce content about herself (not herself as an artist but simply as a young, sexualized woman) ultimately proved wildly successful—more successful than her previous artwork. What her online performance also revealed is that in an age of content, content isn’t just something needed to promote one’s art. Increasingly, content is art or, at least, what has come to stand in for art.

But what does this mean for artists and writers and the broader field of cultural production? If cultural producers are now under immense pressure to produce content—not necessarily about their art or writing but about themselves—is culture itself now nothing more or less than the sum of the content one can produce about their alleged lives as artists or writers? Rather than the “death of the author” heralded by French novelist and philosopher Roland Barthes in the 1960s, are we now witnessing its counterpoint—a cultural sphere where nothing remains but a cult of celebrity being played out on digital platforms?

The field of cultural production in which Ulman and other contemporary artists and writers now work is still partially structured by traditional forms of reception and circulation. In Ulman’s case, reviews of her work in publications such as Art Review and the exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern in London and New Museum in New York City certainly contributed to her success, but neither of these achievements secured her success in the first place. Her ability to gain a foothold in the modern art world was propelled by her willingness to produce content about her life and share it on a social media platform. And Ulman isn’t alone.

Most artists and writers now rely on a similar strategy—or more precisely, content strategy. In the 2020s, if you want to be a successful artist or writer, you don’t necessarily need cultural or social capital or even a preexisting body of art or writing to succeed. What matters most is your content capital.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG is pretty much on the side of anybody who dodges gate-keepers and official taste-makers. The internet continues to flow around the cultural intermediaries that held sway during ancient times.

As Paul Simon wrote many years ago:

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenements halls and whispered in the sounds of silence.

Making History

From The Wall Street Journal:

History offers no promise of an answer or a happy ending. There is not even a promise of a happy beginning: The further back we go, the less we have to go on. Worst of all, a historian cannot make anything up, but must still make everything into a story. No wonder historians tend to avoid historiography, writing about how history is written. It would give the game away.

Richard Cohen’s “Making History” is a substantial, ambitious and consistently readable inquiry into the history of history. His search for how the historical sausage gets made leads him to examine the biographies of the butchers, from Herodotus (the “father of history,” Cicero said, the “father of lies,” Plutarch said) to Nikole Hannah-Jones (the mother of more recent inventions in “The 1619 Project”). Academics may object that biography is vulgar, like writing for money, but the approach of Mr. Cohen, a longtime London book editor, has the weight of history behind it. Character always was destiny. “It is not histories we are writing, but Lives,” Plutarch wrote in the early 2nd century. The characters of the past, and the stories we tell ourselves about them, shape our present and future.

We are, Mr. Cohen writes, in a “golden age” of history writing. For most of human existence, the recording of the past has been “sacred history,” propaganda put forth by a priestly caste or authorities who claimed to rule by divine right—or, sometimes, simply to be divine. History as we know it—honest and free inquiry across the disciplines—has, he argues, only been possible in two epochs. The first was the founding era of the Greeks and the Romans. The second is ours, the era initiated in 1520, when Pope Leo X commissioned Niccolò Machiavelli to write a “History of Florence.” Homer uses histor to mean a “good judge.” A historian’s judgment is impaired when a theological thumb is on the scales—but is the judgment of secular historians any better?

Historians can be divided into followers of Herodotus (c. 485-425 B.C.) and Thucydides (c. 460-395 B.C.). The Herodotus of “Histories” is a storyteller—“the world’s first travel writer, investigative reporter, and foreign correspondent”—and his eye for local color can lead him astray. Team Herodotus is made up of bold synthesizers, and can sometimes play fast and loose with the sources. Cicero acclaimed Herodotus but lumped him with Theopompus, a later Greek historian who was, Mr. Cohen notes, “a notorious liar.”

Team Thucydides starts from scratch, trying not to let a good story get in the way of the facts. Thucydides was a nobleman and a general, and a generation younger than Herodotus. He fought against the Spartans, was blamed for a defeat and found himself exiled with time on his hands. In “The Peloponnesian War,” Mr. Cohen writes, he “developed the art of war reporting almost overnight.” If the hero of “Histories” is Herodotus himself, the hero of “The Peloponnesian War” is Pericles, the Athenian leader who recites Thucydides’ pile-driving rhetoric. Thucydides speaks over our heads, to posterity. He is an analyst, not an entertainer, and the founder of international relations theory. “His dry parts,” Lord Macaulay rued, “are dreadfully dry.”

The Roman empire mass-produced history like its Greek precedecessors, but Roman historians were more than imitators. For Team Thucydides, Polybius dismissed “sensational descriptions,” advised historians to “record with fidelity what actually happened,” preferably from eyewitness accounts, and developed the highly influential cyclical theory of history. For Team Herodotus, Livy added moral example to entertainment. A witness to Rome’s transition from republic to empire, Livy condemns the present by implied comparison to the past. The greatness of the past is ethical—legends of “patriotic heroism and self-sacrifice”—but also a matter of scale. Livy, Mr. Cohen writes, has the heart of a “tabloid journalist” reporting tall tales about “weeping statues; downpours of blood, stones, or meat; monstrous births; and a talking cow.”

The author endorses Petrarch’s opinion that the thousand years after the Roman historians were saeculum obscurum, a “dark age.” Both Christians and Muslims subordinated inquiry to dogma; the revival of Greek-style history in Florence rather than Constantinople, and the repression of free inquiry under Islam, were not foregone conclusions. In the 14th century, while Boccaccio was reduced to tears at the neglect of manuscripts in monastery storerooms, Ibn Khaldun wrote the “Muqaddimah,” the first “systematic social analysis” whose search for the “inner meaning of history” anticipated Hegel. Team Herodotus, meanwhile, struggled on with the Christian chroniclers of the new European nations: Froissart on the chivalric slaughters of the Crusades, Geoffrey of Monmouth on the mythical origins of the English.

Machiavelli’s revival of the Greek method was a heresy. The “History of Florence,” Mr. Cohen writes, is “the first modern analytical study.” The first to judge without religious bias, it marks “a turning away from a God-centered universe toward a man-centered one, in which the heavenly returns of virtuous behavior were no longer seen as a safe bet.” The pursuit of earthly rewards did not uniformly ennoble the modern historians: Many of them pursued the situational morality that Machiavelli advised in “The Prince.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, sorry if it doesn’t work for you.)

Empires and emperors are things of the past—in theory

From The Economist

From the decorative sovereigns of Europe to the more potent ones of the Gulf, monarchs still abound in the 21st century. But none of them is a real emperor. That is to say, there is no modern ruler who wields personal authority over a huge, diverse range of polities, thanks to a distinctive, mysterious swirl of dynastic and spiritual credentials.

That is the observation, delivered with a near-audible sigh of regret, of a historian who has devoted a professional lifetime to one empire in particular, that of Russia under the Romanovs, and to imperial regimes in general. Dominic Lieven brings to his latest work a striking, informed empathy for the dilemmas of mighty sovereigns, from Britain’s Queen-Empress Victoria to galloping lords of the steppes.

As his narrative whirls through the realms of Rome, India, the various Islamic caliphates (including the Ottoman one), the tsarist autocracy and colonial systems commanded from western Europe, he demonstrates an unmistakable soft spot not only for most of the empires of the past, but for their masters and mistresses too. Few readers will share that sentiment, but most will enjoy the journey.

Mr Lieven offers especially vivid portraits of some great empresses, from China’s Wu Zetian (who ruled from 690 to 705ad) to Russia’s Catherine the Great (1762-96), both of whom made shrewd use of their status as outsiders in male-dominated worlds. With verve, he describes the good-cop/bad-cop games played by imperial strategists: that mixture of light-touch suzerainty through local proxies, and occasional ruthlessness, which often let a handful of individuals hold sway over vast and scattered populations.

He presents empires as systems in which disparate cultures and technologies could co-exist creatively. He sees ethno-nationalism—the emergence of small and sharply defined states that slip the imperial bonds—as a destructive force. He is disarmingly frank about the personal history that colours this approach. His academic home is in Britain but he descends from Baltic-German nobles who served Russia; he grew up among Anglo-Irish folk in the twilight of British domination, and spends many months with his in-laws in Japan.

The title promises a focus on imperial claims to divinely ordained legitimacy, or to the plain divinity asserted by the rulers of ancient Rome and nearly modern Japan. And Mr Lieven does say a lot about the unifying and legitimising role played by religion in various empires, from Buddhism and Confucianism in China to Russian Orthodoxy. He writes well about the stark, compelling simplicity of Islam, which galvanised a previously unremarkable group of middle Arabians to overwhelm more sophisticated places.

But religion is only one of his themes. He is no less fascinated by the disproportionate role in history played by the fighting horsemen who, as he recounts, held sway over the north Eurasian grasslands for about 2,500 years—until well into the second Christian millennium. As Mr Lieven notes, the dynastic realms that once extended from modern China can be divided into those dominated by the Han Chinese (the Song and Ming), and the much larger territories governed by the Mongol, Qing and Tang dynasties, whose origins can be traced to “the nomadic warrior world of the Eurasian steppe”.

Both the Ottomans and (less obviously) the Russians, especially those of Moscow, could claim similar roots. Russians are taught at school that in 1480 their forebears threw off the yoke of their so-called Tatar-Mongol masters. This falsely conflates two peoples; it also understates the deep symbiotic link between the Slavic rulers of the Muscovy region and their overlords.

Having said that real empires are a thing of the past, Mr Lieven rather shyly makes the case that understanding them is still important. As he puts it, “most large countries in Asia remain more like empires than the European model of the ethno-national polity.” If the continent “catches the disease of European ethno-nationalism the planet might well not survive the resulting chaos.”

Modern India, he writes provocatively, is the product of the Mughal and British empires, which used divide-and-rule tactics, along with pomp and ceremony, to knit the subcontinent together. Having lost its anti-colonial legitimacy, Mr Lieven says, the Indian state is now succumbing to the plague of ethno-nationalism, and seems to be locked in an ever-more dangerous stand-off with Pakistan.

That analysis will be controversial in India. In any case, the argument for studying empires can be made more simply. Recall that since 2017 American strategy has avowedly been based on great-power competition, which means vying with Russia and China. Officially, neither is now an empire in the sense of being ruled by a sovereign. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are depicted as emperors in cartoons, but both emerged from an ideology that in theory abhorred inherited privilege.

What matters most, though, is not what they are, but what they think they are.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Patton’s Payback

From The Wall Street Journal:

Like any good soldier, Maj. Gen. George Patton wrote regularly to his wife, though perhaps not as tenderly as she would have liked: “I wish I could get out and kill someone,” he told her in the winter of 1942-43.

November had started out in pleasing fashion, with Patton commanding 35,000 soldiers and 250 tanks in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa that marked the first time that Americans had faced German and Italian troops in World War II. But within a few weeks he was stuck in Casablanca. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had him moving supplies and men to the front, while the rest of the Anglo-American army marched through Morocco and Algeria and into Tunisia. This wasn’t his idea of warfare. When it came to the enemy—in the words of his son-in-law, then-Col. John K. Waters—Patton expected “to hold them by the nose and kick them in the ass.”

That job had unfortunately been entrusted to a more timid two-star, Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, who preferred to stay well away from the fighting. Even with roughly 90 miles between him and the Axis forces, as Stephen L. Moore tells us in “Patton’s Payback: The Battle of El Guettar and General Patton’s Rise to Glory,” Fredendall ordered his engineers to dig “subway-like tunnels and underground complexes” to protect his headquarters in Tunisia from German bombers.

. . . .

Not until spring 1943 was Fredendall kicked upstairs, promoted and sent home to train young Americans for future combat—thus delaying Patton’s return to a front-line command. The hiatus doesn’t trouble Mr. Moore, who isn’t writing a campaign history. Instead, like a latter-day Ernie Pyle, he wants to tell the story of men at the tip of the spear. Letters home, diaries and postwar interviews are the grist for Mr. Moore’s mill, and he has a gift for melding them into a coherent narrative.

Thus we learn the story of the invasion and the subsequent march across North Africa through the eyes of the men who fought it. We read about the gallant Col. Bill Darby of the Ranger battalion and about enlisted soldiers like Pfc. Harley Reynolds, who in his first hour under fire notices that his platoon’s machine-gunner has frozen up. “Reynolds grabbed the gunner’s feet and yanked him away,” writes Mr. Moore, and another brave lad flops down beside him to feed the ammunition. At one point, we see troops just ahead of combat, as viewed by a lieutenant who is gauging their mental state: “Some chatted excitedly while heating C rations over their little stoves, while others enjoyed a few hours of sleep ‘after rereading by candlelight for the hundredth time a crumpled and smudged letter from home.’ ”

Such details are so absorbing that one scarcely notices that it is not until halfway through the book—and halfway across North Africa—that Patton takes charge. He shows up for breakfast at Fredendall’s bunker-like headquarters at 0700 hours (7 a.m.) on March 7, 1943. Only one other officer is present. “Patton immediately passed orders to the cooks that the mess hall would be closed at 0730 on this day and every day forward,” Mr. Moore tells us. Nor is that his only dictate. “Every man old enough will shave every day,” he decrees. “Officers will wear ties into combat. And anyone wearing a wool knit cap without a steel helmet will be shot.” Appearances are important to Patton, and he is seldom photographed without a tie, steel helmet, knee boots, flared cavalry breeches and an ivory-handled pistol on each hip.

He immediately gathers Fredendall’s scattered American forces—now 88,000 men in three infantry divisions, an armored division, a field artillery brigade and seven battalions of “tank destroyers” (basically heavy trucks, each with a cannon firing over the driver’s head)—into a unified command. His headquarters is never far from the fighting. More than once, the troops plead with him to get back, perhaps for fear that his three stars (he’s now a lieutenant general) will attract sniper fire.

. . . .

Since November 1942, as Mr. Moore reminds us, the Operation Torch troops (British, American and French) have taken a 1,000-mile swath of land, from Casablanca to central Tunisia, while another British army has pushed the enemy out of Egypt and across Libya to the Tunisian coast. Against orders, Patton tells his troops to drive for the coast

. . . .

[O]n April 14, Patton is called to Eisenhower’s headquarters and told to start planning Operation Husky, the forthcoming invasion of Sicily that will mark the Allies’ return to the European continent. “In a mere five weeks of command,” concludes Mr. Moore, “Patton had turned the tide. . . . He had charted a course for victory, and had whipped an ill-prepared army into shape.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)

One More for the Road

From Washington City Paper:

By my count, I’ve had a hand in producing roughly 450 print issues of Washington City Paper since I joined its staff as the City Lights editor in the fall of 2012. Several stand out for reasons good and bad—massive Best of D.C. books that had us working around the clock, stories we knew we’d beaten our competitors to, an issue sent to the printer so late that we feared it might not come out. The rest ebbed back into the ocean after cresting on Wednesday nights.

From a technical standpoint, my generation of City People has a significantly easier time producing print issues than our predecessors did, assembling our issues with trackpads and keyboard commands while they used knives and paste. In the paper’s nascent days, when it was still produced in Baltimore, the staff sent pages and materials back and forth on a massive fax machine. That was an improvement, former publisher Amy Austin says, over the previous method: On Monday nights, she used to deliver the necessary files to the Greyhound bus station, where they would be ferried north.

Print issues were commodities. Readers grabbed them from delivery drivers before they could even drop off a stack at a business or a street box. The need for news, for criticism, for event listings, for classified ads, or a good story was immediate, and the internet has only expanded that pleasure center.

In my time at City Paper, the issues shrunk. Advertisers moved online and found ways to reach the specific audiences they were looking for. Competitors arrived on the scene, offering their own irreverent takes on life in the District. Still we pushed forward, filing dispatches on abandoned car parts, shameless developers, and the characters entering and exiting the Wilson Building. Newer annual issues, such as the Answers Issue and the People Issue, still demanded a place on a coffee table or in your hand at a coffee shop. 

And then came a novel coronavirus, the enemy of almost everything but especially independent arts venues. We muddled through what we hoped was the worst of it, but eventually had to face a harsh reality: Our advertisers and many of our readers are elsewhere. We meet readers in their email inboxes more frequently than we meet them on the street. A bar that hosts live music is most focused on paying its staff right now.

So this is the last regular print edition of Washington City Paper you will see. In the weeks leading up to this issue, I found myself thinking about those departed characters whose shadows hang over the institution. Of Jim Graham, the AIDS advocate and former Ward 1 councilmember who would register his complaints every week without fail but still stop by a holiday party. Of Marion Barry, the main character of D.C.’s home rule era and of countless City Paper stories, who transformed the District in so many ways. Of Michael Mariotte, the punk-rock drummer who decided to kick this whole thing off. Of David Carr, the tough but transformational leader whose wisdom on craft and reporting are still being passed down to generation after generation of aspiring writers. What would they say? (Carr, I’m guessing, would tell us to keep working.)

. . . .

Washington City Paper will still be around, albeit in digital formats and with a smaller staff. And we will still do our damnedest to get it right.

Link to the rest at Washington City Paper

PG hadn’t heard of this particular newspaper in Washington, DC, before and is always a bit sad when he hears of any enterprise that people worked hard at starting and continuing is going out of business or cutting back substantially.

When PG started working a long time ago, he was in Chicago and the city had five newspapers, two that published in the morning, two in the afternoon and one daily paper that catered to the large African-American community.

When he entered the station, morning and evening, he would automatically buy a newspaper, read it while he rode on the train and deposit the paper in a trash can when he got off the train.

Chicago had a lot of good newspaper columnists during that era. PG’s favorite was Mike Royko, who had a unique, sarcastic and jaded take on a lot of things in Chicago.

Here’s an old Royko column, written in 1972, on the day Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team, died.

Jackie’s Debut a Unique Day

All that Saturday, the wise men of the neighborhood, who sat in chairs on the sidewalk outside the tavern, had talked about what it would do to baseball.

 I hung around and listened because baseball was about the most important thing in the world, and if anything was going to ruin it, I was worried.

 Most of the things they said, I didn’t understand, although it all sounded terrible. But could one man bring such ruin?

 They said he could and would. And the next day he was going to be in Wrigley Field for the first time, on the same diamond as Hack, Nicholson, Cavarretta, Schmitz, Pafko, and all my other idols.

 I had to see Jackie Robinson, the man who was going to somehow wreck everything. So the next day, another kid and I started walking to the ballpark early.

 We always walked to save the streetcar fare. It was five or six miles, but I felt about baseball the way Abe Lincoln felt about education.

 Usually, we could get there just at noon, find a seat in the grandstand, and watch some batting practice. But not that Sunday, May 18, 1947.

 By noon, Wrigley Field was almost filled. The crowd outside spilled off the sidewalk and into the streets. Scalpers were asking top dollar for box seats and getting it.

 I had never seen anything like it. Not just the size, although it was a new record, more than 47,000. But this was twenty-five years ago, and in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the white North Side at a Cub game.

 That day, they came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars.

 They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes·suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats. I’ve never seen so many straw hats.

 As big as it was, the crowd was orderly. Almost unnaturally so. People didn’t jostle each other.

 The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease.

 For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.

 We managed to get in, scramble up a ramp, and find a place to stand behind the last row of grandstand seats. Then they shut the gates. No place remained to stand.

 Robinson came up in the first inning. I remember the sound. It wasn’t the shrill, teenage cry you now hear, or an excited gut roar. They applauded, long, rolling applause. A tall, middle-aged black man stood next to me, a smile of almost painful joy on his face, beating his palms together so hard they must have hurt.

 When Robinson stepped into the batter’s box, it was as if someone had flicked a switch. The place went silent.

 He swung at the first pitch and they erupted as if he had knocked it over the wall. But it was only a high foul that dropped into the box seats. I remember thinking it was strange that a foul could make that many people happy. When he struck out, the low moan was genuine.

 I’ve forgotten most of the details of the game, other than that the Dodgers won and Robinson didn’t get a hit or do anything special, although he was cheered on every swing and every routine play.

 But two things happened I’ll never forget. Robinson played first, and early in the game a Cub star hit a grounder and it was a close play.

 Just before the Cub reached first, he swerved to his left. And as he got to the bag, he seemed to slam his foot down hard at Robinson’s foot.

 It was obvious to everyone that he was trying to run into him or spike him. Robinson took the throw and got clear at the last instant.

 I was shocked. That Cub, a hometown boy, was my biggest hero. It was not only an unheroic stunt, but it seemed a rude thing to do in front of people who would cheer for a foul ball. I didn’t understand why he had done it. It wasn’t at all big league.

 I didn’t know that while the white fans were relatively polite, the Cubs and most other teams kept up a steady stream of racial abuse from the dugout. I thought that all they did down there was talk about how good Wheaties are.

 Late in the game, Robinson was up again, and he hit another foul ball. This time it came into the stands low and fast, in our direction. Somebody in the seats grabbed for it, but it caromed off his hand and kept coming. There was a flurry of arms as the ball kept bouncing, and suddenly it was between me and my pal. We both grabbed. I had a baseball.

 The two of us stood there examining it and chortling. A genuine major-league baseball that had actually been gripped and thrown by a Cub pitcher, hit by a Dodger batter. What a possession.

 Then I heard the voice say: “Would you consider selling that?”

 It was the black man who had applauded so fiercely.

 I mumbled something. I didn’t want to sell it.

 “I’ll give you ten dollars for it,” he said.

 Ten dollars. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t know what ten dollars could buy because I’d never had that much money. But I knew that a lot of men in the neighborhood considered sixty dollars a week to be good pay.

 I handed it to him, and he paid me with ten $1 bills.

 When I left the ball park, with that much money in my pocket, I was sure that Jackie Robinson wasn’t bad for the game.

 Since then, I’ve regretted a few times that I didn’t keep the ball. Or that I hadn’t given it to him free. I didn’t know, then, how hard he probably had to work for that ten dollars.

 But Tuesday I was glad I had sold it to him. And if that man is still around, and has that baseball, I’m sure he thinks it was worth every cent.

Here’s a link to more Royko columns

PG felt a little sad as he read the Royko column because he can’t remember when he last read a physical newspaper.

Capricious Actions That Cross the Line

From Publishing Perspectives:

[A] digital annual meeting of the Association of American Publishers (AAP) “would hardly be a meeting of publishers,” said AAP president and CEO Maria A. Pallante, “if we didn’t address the First Amendment.

“As we all know, across the country, thousands of books are being questioned with a scrutiny that’s newly chilling,” she said, “from novels to math books. This is not to say that parents and communities don’t have a say in public education, as the law is clear that they do. But that roll has constitutional limits. It does not extend to capricious actions that cross the line and amount to censorship. In fact, the line is important.”

Indeed it is. And the association shines most brightly when it operates with such outspoken clarity in public policy and political channels to protect and promote the place of the book industry and its freedom to publish.

“And so last month, in Missouri,” Pallante said, “we were proud to join with the booksellers, Authors Guild, and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to file a brief in support of the NAACP—a case involving the removal of books from school libraries, including award-winning books addressing race and sexuality, such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

“In our filing, we highlighted the constitutional rights of minors to receive intellectual information as well as the deep flaws in the school district’s assertion that the banned books were obscene and therefore removable.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG suggests that Ms. Pallante needs a bit more understanding about public education and the constitution.

“This is not to say that parents and communities don’t have a say in public education, as the law is clear that they do.”

To PG’s sensitive ears, this statement sounds amazingly condescending. Public education is, by and large, funded by state and local taxes. To the best of PG’s knowledge, public school boards are elected in local elections by “parents and communities.”

Generally speaking, the public schools where most students are educated are determined by what geographical school district where the students reside. PG is aware that at least some states allow students in one school district to attend schools in a different district, usually, one adjoining the district where they reside. PG is not familiar with the state of vouchers across the United States but believes vouchers aren’t available to the large majority of children in public schools.

PG was raised in rural, sometimes very rural areas where getting to public school involved a school bus ride that lasted 20-30 minutes or more in some cases. Attending a more distant school would have required his parents to transport him there because public transportation was not available in any form. The only practical choice for his education was the local public school so even if “school choice” had existed, it would not have been practically exercisable.

Many states provide “educational vouchers” that allow families to fund attendance at private schools. Typically, private schools that accept vouchers (PG doesn’t think all do) receive an amount per student that is roughly equivalent to the money a public school would receive from local and state funds for a student’s education for a year.

Ultimately, educators receiving state and local funds for their salaries select textbooks for children to read in class, spending state and local funds to purchase those books. School principals and district superintendents are also paid from those funds.

PG suggests that parents have a right to pressure public school officials if they believe their tax money is being used to provide access to books they reasonably believe will cause harm to their children. When a large group of parents supports such objections, public school officials should realize that their concerns should be carefully considered and, in virtually every circumstance, be reflected in the school’s libraries and textbooks.

The Association of American Publishers is located in Washington, DC. Virtually all major trade publishers are located in New York City. PG suggests that these two cities, their inhabitants, and their values, priorities, and interests are quite different from the typical American and, in particular, typical American families with children who attend public school.

As PG has written previously, publishers of all sorts are controlled and managed by a group of people who are quite homogenous in their values and experiences and are atypical of American families with children who attend public school. These people ultimately control the content of traditionally-published books, school books, and a wide range of other media. He suggests that their values are also quite different from the typical American and, in particular, typical American families with children who attend public school.

If you would like to read the American Association of Publishers’ brief filed with the Federal District Court, it should be embedded below.

‘The Wordhord’ Review: Here Be Dragons

From The Wall Street Journal:

The language now known as Old English arrived in Britain in the fifth century, not long after the end of Roman rule, brought by settlers from northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. It was in use for 700 years, but only about 200 manuscripts containing any Old English survive, mainly from the period between 900 and 1100, and they comprise a total of 3.5 million words—fewer than in the current U.S. tax code. Today most people who engage with Old English do so at college and treat it as a dusty relic of a less enlightened age. Those who have not encountered it tend to imagine it’s the stuff of archaic English pub signs. Worse, they assume it’s the name for the language of Geoffrey Chaucer (which is actually Middle English) or Shakespeare (which is technically Early Modern English, despite student protestations to the contrary).

Hana Videen is one of a rare and treasurable breed of enthusiasts who want to remedy such misconceptions. Since the fall of 2013, she has taken to Twitter every day, as @OEWordhord, to post a single example of an Old English word. More than eight years on, the fruit of this slow accumulation is her first book. I doubt that I’m alone in frowning at the proliferation of nonfiction that began life as burblings on social media, and there’s an undelightful subgenre of Twitterature consisting of volumes that merely pile up linguistic trivia. But Ms. Videen is both a passionate medievalist and a relaxed, lucid writer; the pleasure she takes in her subject is infectious.

Some of the vocabulary presented in “The Wordhord” looks very familiar: One needs no help to understand what’s meant by the nouns “butere,” “sumer” and “wulf,” and it’s pretty easy to make sense of “leornung-mann,” a student, or even “ears-endu,” the buttocks. Yet many Old English words have a discouragingly odd appearance, not least because its alphabet boasted three letters that haven’t survived—ash (æ), thorn (þ) and eth (ð). Ms. Videen likens her book to an old photo album; many of the words she cites are “familiar but also strange, like seeing pictures of your parents as children.” And while she revels in showcasing lexical quirks, she has a larger mission: “As I gathered words like gems, I realised that they weren’t just funny, strange and beautiful, but that together they told a story about people’s lives more than a millennium ago.”

Instead of offering a comprehensive guide to Old English, “The Wordhord” leads the reader on a tour of those people’s everyday concerns: food, work, recreation, travel. You may be reassured (or dispirited) to learn that the most frequent topics of discussion in Old English included sickness and the weather—though it’s interesting that the latter was by default regarded as mild and that someone warning of an approaching deluge would refer to “un-weder.” A different kind of age-old preoccupation is evident in the description of Grendel, a vicious marauder in the epic poem “Beowulf,” who’s considered monstrous because he is a “mearc-stapa”—in other words, a “boundary-stepper,” lurking on the fringes of society and threatening the established order.

Yet, unsurprisingly, much about the world evoked in “The Wordhord” feels alien. One could pay one’s tax in fish, perhaps throwing in a few eels for good measure, or in honey, lumber or blankets. A person accused of a crime might be expected to hold an ounce of bread and cheese in his mouth; if he had difficulty swallowing it, he was guilty. The smallest unit of time measurement was the hour. There was no Old English word for “nature”; one simply referred to “sceaft” (creation).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall.)

What We Can Deduce From a Leaked PDF

From Matthew Butterick:

In 1979, Bob Wood­ward and Scott Armstrong published The Brethren, a chron­icle of the Supreme Court during the tumul­tuous and conse­quen­tial terms from 1969 to 1975. Including, of course, the delib­er­a­tions around Roe v. Wade. I’ve recom­mended the book before—it’s my favorite work of legal jour­nalism.

At the time, The Brethren was contro­ver­sial. Despite the Supreme Court’s long­standing policy of secrecy around internal delib­er­a­tions, it was apparent that sources within the court had spoken to Wood­ward and Armstrong off the record. After the death of Justice Potter Stewart in 1985, Wood­ward confirmed that Stewart had been one of his key sources.

Thus, the bad news for those who contend that the recent leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion is “unthink­able” or, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, a “singular and egre­gious breach”—the horse is long out of the barn. Indeed, with so many more ways to securely leak infor­ma­tion these days, the only surprise in recent years is that there haven’t been more.

Much as I enjoy Wood­ward’s writing, his sources are not neces­sarily well concealed. One just needs to ask: “which person in this story takes the fewest hits?” For instance, in Wood­ward’s earlier book about the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, Fear, this line of thinking led inex­orably to former White House economic adviser Gary Cohn.

Cohn publicly ques­tioned the accu­racy of the book. Tellingly, he didn’t specify any partic­ular fact it had gotten wrong. In general, when sources deny jour­nal­istic reporting, I trust the jour­nal­ists, because there are still serious legal conse­quences for news orga­ni­za­tions that publish false­hoods; mean­while, no conse­quences at all for sources who issue blanket denials.

(This dynamic isn’t limited to polit­ical reporting. In 2018, Bloomberg Busi­ness­week published a story called “The Big Hack” that was vigor­ously denied by Apple and Amazon. Based on these denials, certain tech blog­gers became convinced that the story was false. The fact that neither Apple nor Amazon sued Bloomberg for defama­tion—despite being extremely rich, finicky, and liti­gious—made nary a dent.)

To be fair, this exchange of favors is not unique to Wood­ward. Rather, it’s a long­standing feature—or bug, some might say—of Wash­ington polit­ical jour­nalism. Much of the oper­a­tion of govern­ment is committed to the public record. But much more is not. Thus, leaks become currency, traded constantly. Without them, there would be no national polit­ical news.

So when you hear the cater­wauling—“egad, the leakers!”—assume it refers to the leaks that the cater­wauler finds unflat­tering. Although disclosing actual clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion is a crime, much infor­ma­tion about the govern­ment doesn’t fall into that cate­gory. In partic­ular, it doesn’t appear that leaking a draft Supreme Court opinion breaks any law. So the hot-blooded idea that the leaker should be “pros­e­cuted” is misplaced.

Not every leak is published, however. Over time, one of the reci­p­rocal favors that Wash­ington jour­nal­ists have offered is to plug certain leaks rather than publi­cize them. For instance, during his first 10 years on the Supreme Court—including the time depicted in The Brethren—Justice William Rehn­quist became addicted to Placidyl, a powerful seda­tive. Never­the­less, this fact was not mentioned in Wood­ward’s book, nor much other jour­nalism of the time. As best I can tell, the Wash­ington Post didn’t explic­itly connect Rehn­quist to Placidyl until after he had completed a detox program in early 1982. (Current Chief Justice John Roberts clerked for Rehn­quist during the 1980–81 term.)

Bringing us to this week’s leak by Politico of a draft Supreme Court opinion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Orga­ni­za­tion. I don’t usually comment on current events. But the possi­bil­i­ties for typo­graphic foren­sics were too intriguing to ignore.

Consis­tent with the Wash­ington jour­nal­istic prin­ciple of leaks-for-favors, I infer that whoever leaked this draft must foresee a benefit from the leak—as usual, cui bono?

. . . .

So what can we tell from the docu­ment itself?

For thor­ough­ness, I ran the PDF through some meta­data checkers to see if there were any inter­esting tidbits left behind. There weren’t. Though I didn’t expect to find any, based on the appear­ance of the docu­ment.

How was it created? Let’s go in steps:

  • An orig­inal color PDF was created on a computer using the US Supreme Court’s usual type­set­ting soft­ware. (And what is that? Programmer Faiz Surani noticed (perhaps unin­ten­tional) refer­ences in the Supreme Court Style Guide to a tool called “Opin­ions 2003”, which he spec­u­lated is a custom version of Microsoft Word 2003 used by the clerks for drafting opin­ions. This sounds plau­sible. For the type­set­ting and layout, designer Dan Rhatigan noted that the Supreme Court once used (and likely still uses) an XML-based publishing system made by Miles 33, appar­ently called OASYS. I’ve seen theo­ries else­where that La­TeX is involved—this wouldn’t surprise me either, because to my eye, the line breaking in Supreme Court opin­ions resem­bles that produced by the La­TeX algo­rithm.)
  • It seems that the PDF was created on a modern computer and not with a different device because of the use of Arial in the upper right corner of the first page.
  • It seems that the PDF was created in color because the yellow high­light around “1st Draft” is a rectangle that perfectly fits the text. Thus, the box must’ve been present in the digital file, and not, say, drawn by hand with a high­lighting pen.
  • It seems the PDF was printed and stapled because of the pres­ence of staple holes on the top left corner of each page. The opinion is 98 pages, so that must’ve been a pretty big staple.
  • It seems that the printed PDF was unsta­pled and then rescanned. Why? The reso­lu­tion of the page itself is very coarse and uneven, which is a kind of typo­graphic degra­da­tion char­ac­ter­istic of sheet scan­ners. Further­more, the pages have been scanned at different angles, which indi­cates the use of a low-volume home-office device. A typical office scanner would have an auto­mated sheet feeder that would keep the sheets in a more uniform vertical orien­ta­tion.
  • The text of the PDF is search­able because OCR was run on the PDF after it was created. Perhaps by the leaker, but more likely by the recip­ient, Politico.

It’s possible that Politico received the printed docu­ment and made their own scan. If that were the case, however, I’d expect them to have better quality scan­ning equip­ment and produce a nicer PDF.

But Politico has a strong incen­tive to protect their source. By making their own scan from a paper orig­inal, they wouldn’t open them­selves up to the disclo­sures of confi­den­tial infor­ma­tion that have tripped up others. (That said, printed docu­ments are not neces­sarily free of meta­data, as Reality Winner found out the hard way.)

Is it possible the docu­ment was scanned twice—once by the leaker, once by the publisher? I don’t think so. If it had been, I’d expect to see more pecu­liar pixel-level arti­facts and distor­tions.

So what does the state of the PDF tell us about the iden­tity of the leaker?

  • I conclude it must be someone who only had access to a stapled, printed copy of the draft opinion. (If the person had access to the under­lying digital file, they wouldn’t have printed & stapled it just to unstaple it.)
  • As explained above, I don’t think the leaker was an oppo­nent of the opinion, because there would be no tactical value in doing so. More­over, if the objec­tive of the leak was indeed to recon­sol­i­date support, then the leak didn’t come from someone whose support is wobbling.
  • Further­more, notice also that the docu­ment is completely unmarked, so whoever owned this copy didn’t find anything to disagree with.
  • In sum—I’d suppose it’s a friend, spouse, or family member of a Supreme Court justice who has consis­tently opposed Roe v. Wade, acting with some­thing between autonomy and plau­sible deni­a­bility.

Link to the rest at Matthew Butterick

There are lots of enlargements of various parts of the original leaked document at the link.