Mythbusters, ending this season, has a long valedictory in the NYT today, and I am ambivalent. I’ve enjoyed the show from time to time, especially when the team blew things up and broke stuff, but I’m not ready to get on board with it as a great science education motivator. My wife and daughter have a thing for NUMB3RS, a police procedural featuring a trio of mathematicians who help the FBI, and I find it makes me impatient in a similar way. I think the problem is that Mythbusters too often ignored the mathematics that distinguishes engineering and science from tinkering, and NUMB3RS just treats math like a mysterious religious cult, complete with blackboards full of equations we never see long enough to begin to understand; when a real mathematical principle or result gets in the script, it’s drowned by the usual cop-show action/suspense noise. Continue Reading…
I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.
Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’ descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:
And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.
Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.
This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.
So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue Reading…
Keith wrote, of deaths caused by drunk driving:
But if we think of tragedy as the Ancient Greeks did — something that was unavoidable — drink driving deaths aren’t a tragedy but an outrage.
Dead right on the outrage. But did the Greeks really see tragedy this way?
SFIK the Ancient Greeks did not use the remarkable and unique art form they had developed, the “goat-songs” that they performed in competitive religious festivals, as a metaphor for life. It was the reverse: life and myth gave them stories to be recapitulated and reshaped in the performance of tragedies, and these in turn gave them insights into the human condition. Alexander modelled himself on Homer’s Achilles, but he was an outlier in everything.
The goat-songs and epic recitations came first, the theorising later. Continue Reading…
We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.
Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.
Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:
They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.
Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?
Virginia Postrel (who has engaged the question, “shouldn’t museum holdings be where people can see them?” in the past) riffs on my Democracy article in Bloomberg View; there was a podcast on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk last month. I’m not sure why this issue seems to ring bells in right-wing circles, but I like the idea that the sort of people likely to turn up at museum trustee meetings are coming upon it. Maybe they will start to ask the kind of questions tough-minded captains of industry are supposed to be good at, like “how do you expect to run this operation properly if your balance sheet leaves out most of your assets?”
Wednesday was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. It’s hard to spend too much time reflecting on Lincoln; I use the first thing he ever published, comparing two infrastructure projects in a local election campaign, as an example of policy analysis avant la lettre, and he just gets better and better from there. Even David Brooks says he becomes a better man spending quiet time in the Lincoln Memorial. The second inaugural is one of great works of public discourse; terse, just, humane. I think French’s portrait nails it: brilliant, menschlich, determined; open hand, closed fist. Lincoln makes everyone reach a little higher.
I listened the grooves off this wonderful cantata when I was a kid, and I’m pleased to find that someone has posted it here , here, and here. It was performed live, after fifty years on the shelf, in 2009.
There’s no video; remember how to make your own pictures in your own head? Take a half-hour, just to be sure we don’t forget what a real American is.
Neither Google nor Bing show a results count when you search images (why not?), but it’s obvious that the number of Christian images of the Resurrection, especially of serious works of art, is enormously less than the number of images of the Cruxifixion. This is to some extent a reflection of the technical difficulty: if a painter can’t make a Cruxifixion affecting, he’s in the wrong business; a convincing Resurrection is hugely difficult. But religious artists basically respond to commissions, and the ratio reflects the unease of Christians with the idea. It was there in the proto-Church, see 1 Corinthians 15:12:
How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
And if Christians are honest, it’s still a hard sell.
It is not then surprising that good Resurrection art is scarce. The works are often the work of oddball artists: Grünewald, whose day job was as a millwright; Piero della Francesca, day job mathematician; and the anonymous painter of the Chora in Istanbul (image, discussion).
Continuing our little RBC series of Easter artworks, here is one by Bramantino (who he?) in the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, dated to around 1490. Hi-res version on their website.
Bramantino takes the unease into outright shock and weirdness. It starts with the corpse-like pallor of the skin and the knife-like folds of the drapery: this isn’t fun. The most striking thing is the face: a head-on gaze, without joy or triumph, but inward-looking rather than judgemental. There is no glory here, and much recollected pain in the twisted mouth and bloodshot eyes. Victory no doubt, but that of a soldier who has survived a bloody battle; a Malplaquet, with no ringing of church bells in celebration.
The take is I suppose orthodox theologically. In the standard Christian theodicy, God became Isaiah’s suffering servant in the Passion, and suffers still through the ongoing sins of men and women. The eccentricity is in Bramantino’s omission of the joy of reunion, the humour, and the empathy we find in the Gospel accounts of the appearances, and the eschatological hope and triumph emphasised by the other artists in our series. Also in the lovely 8th-century Easter hymn by St. John of Damascus (take note of the hapless mediaeval geography, Ted Cruz):
The round earth keep high triumph, and all that is therein.
Enjoy your Easter eggs or chocolate bunnies, everybody.
I have wrung my hands in the past, in this space and elsewhere, about the collapse of a workable market for digital goods. I find it hard to get people as excited about this as I am–if I still had enough hair for anyone to notice it would be on fire–but I have some help from Scott Timberg now so I am going to try again. Short version: buy this book, Culture Crash, and read it. Now. I believe it is the Piketty of 2015, and the first book I’ve stayed up to read straight through at one sitting–sometimes literally in tears, both of pain and of rage– in years. It is not just about culture, but about whatever really big issue you lie awake worrying about.
Long post (no, not a substitute for the book; read it), get a cup of coffee .
In the High and Far-Off Times (2008 and 2011) I blogged some photos of modern French and other designs for high-voltage electricity pylons that look like well-designed pieces of engineering, not a child’s failed Meccano project. I told you that the British Department of Energy and Climate Change had launched a competition for pylons for the British grid, then I forgot about it. Rather late, here are the winner and the five others that made the shortlist. This was actually announced – ahem – in October 2011. There hasn’t exactly been a rush anywhere to phase out the old lattices, so it’s still a good idea to publicise the new designs. The assessment included National Grid, the operator of the transmission network, and an eminent academic engineer served as one of the judges, so we can assume all the shortlist met engineering standards.
Winner: T-pylon from Bystrup of Denmark
This clean but not very exciting design won in part because of its low height, making it less intrusive in the landscape: it cuts
35 14 metres off the existing lattices. National Grid are committed to this to the extent of building a line of six at their training centre in Nottinghamshire, and will offer the design as an option to communities affected by new lines.
Also-rans below the jump. Continue Reading…
A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond. We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.
As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!” But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this. His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”
“Really,” I said. “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”
You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in mid-Twentieth Century America. The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.
The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South. It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students. The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.
So why haven’t you learned about any of this? Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death. So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity. But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.
Not by all of us, though. I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald Fellows. One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean. As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.” Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.
Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”
He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:
During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch. Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them. While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries. Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do. His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?” He hoisted the car back onto the road. “No charge.”
Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers. “Do you know who this is?” he asked. “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!” It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her. “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this! I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”
Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.
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