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Everyone is an art critic

July 6, 2020

Let’s first dispense with a particularly stupid argument, that toppling monuments and removing flags erases history. No one learns history by looking at statues. The history of the Axis was not erased when the victorious allies tore down Germany’s and Italy’s statues and banners and other monuments. What actually erases history is the destruction of records, the legal sequestering of information, official secrecy, and perhaps most of all, people’s failure to record what might interest those in the future.

The argument over statues — which to topple, which to make, which to preserve — is essentially an argument over art. The first and sufficient clue is that sculpting and painting both are taught in the same schools. The interesting thing about any piece of art is that its meaning changes over time, depending on where it is displayed, on what groups are motivated by it and how, on its relation to current politics, on what we know about its past, on its reception by the art world. And who should be making arguments about its display? Those related to the subject? To the work’s past? Those nearby who will see it often? The painting right, by Alexander Gerasimov, shows Stalin and Voroshilov. Should it be ritually burned, because it was commissioned to show one of history’s worst dictators? Preserved, as an iconic example of the art that time produced? Trashed, with the other art that time produced? Moved to a wing that also shows paintings of Putin?

The Confederacy was created for the singular and clearly expressed purpose of preserving black, chattel slavery. To the extent that we can label a regime evil, it must be included high in that list. Yet here in the US, there still is a veneration of it, an attempt to pretend there was some nobility married to that cause. That veneration has roots in the Lost Cause movement, quite ugly in its own right. Which creates the quite understandable desire to tear down the statues and monuments and flags that movement raised.

But, this is where the initial observation above plays the other way. Changing Mississippi’s state flag won’t make anyone more knowledgeable about history or more liberal in their views. It won’t change the fact that it took Mississippi until 2020 to do that. History books and museums still will accurately record the flag that flew for so many decades. It does not erase history. In politics, in the short term, it may create as much backlash as nudge away from that past.

Photographs can be a bit different. Though art, they also are a kind of recording that is less interpreted in their making. Especially when the subjects aren’t posed by the photographer. Li Zhensheng, famous for his photographs of China’s cultural revolution, recently died.

Technology and the ancient

July 2, 2020

Recent advances in the ability to lift and identify trace proteins may give historians and archaeologists a new scope on the past.

Chad Orzel ponders on the technology that went into Ötzi’s kit, some five millennium old, and the developments that went into it. We should be cautious, though, of attributing the knowledge work present in a culture to particular individuals in it. Everyone today carries a cellphone. Few understand the first thing about radio waves. Those prehistoric cultures knew some practical metallurgy. Or at least, a few people in them did. Not most who carried copper or bronze tools.

No magic shield

July 1, 2020

On March 19th, a mere three months back, local officials were happy to announce that Nueces County “remains free of confirmed cases of coronavirus.” I suspect many thought there had to be some undiscovered beneficial cause for that. Maybe the heat and humidity. Maybe the salt air. Maybe something else about south Texas. Something other than just luck. And thinking we were good, many were careless. First it crept up on us slowly. Until eighteen days past, we never had seen more than eight hospitalized, or more than 27 cases confirmed in one day. In the last two weeks, it has exploded, with more than two hundred cases confirmed daily, over a hundred now hospitalized, and elective surgeries again cancelled. And now, we’re running low on testing facilities.

Update: Arizona has started triage for Covid-19 patients.

Deadly animals

June 30, 2020

Who knew? Loons can kill.

Human loons, with abandon.

Vipers are the worst.

Duck shit

June 29, 2020

Many graduate students working on some esoteric problem envy those like Ádám Lovas-Kiss, who when asked his subject of study, could give a short answer everyone understands: duck shit. Which also turns out to be an answer to an old question in natural history: How do fish get to remote ponds, especially new ones that never before had fish? He and his co-authors published their findings (cite) that some fish eggs survive the intestinal tracks of ducks, still viable. Not many. Eggs are not as tough as seeds. But enough. As he notes, “Birds just love fish eggs.” Well, don’t we all.

The party of the trolls

June 26, 2020

A group of Trumpistas who objected when Palm Beach County put some mask rules in place took advantage of the public forum to troll, and are getting international attention. They demonstrate all the attributes of the modern GOP: reliance on nonsense and conspiracy theories, uber-patriotism, a cartoonish notion of political rights, their god shining down on it all, and zero recognition of how stupid and mean that all is. There are people like that in all nations, of course. Ours have won their own political party. Their King Troll tells them the recent upswing in the disease doesn’t matter, and blames the media for not focusing on the fact that Covid-19 mortality hasn’t yet followed the surge in cases. Yet. Regarding America’s distinctive failure to control this disease, his advisers just shrug. Given their target audience, why not?

Real, but subtle

June 25, 2020

Thomas Kuhn became more skeptical in the years after his famous book. Which led to some incorrect predictions. John Horgan correctly points out that the issue of whether HIV causes AIDS is thoroughly settled. More, I would point out that much of the skepticism around that in the early years never was rational, but was exactly the same kind of nonsense one sees now regarding Covid-19. I guess someone pressing Kuhn’s view could point to a variety of alternative medicine adherents and conspiracy theorists who would say otherwise still. But any realistic philosophy of science has to accommodate the fact that many people are irrational.

That we do sometimes reach definitive answers doesn’t mean we always do. The world is complex and much of it hard to scry. Since its onset, statistics have shown that Covid-19 affects men more than women. Perhaps that reflects some biology. Perhaps that reflects different behavior and underlying health. Perhaps we eventually will untangle that. Perhaps not.

I didn’t know June 25th was the Day of the Seafarer. But I’ll drink a whiskey to all my friends that make their living on the water!


June 24, 2020

What made A French Village so much more watchable that most war movies is that the characters don’t seem to know the future, and have plausible, individual motivation and circumstance that runs independently of the great political divisions of the day. Some of the main characters move back and forth between cooperating with the Vichy government and working with the resistance. The series shows well how those labels grow harder in retrospect, for the sake of post-war politics.

The current US government is headed by a conman supported by his cult following. The deep state so far has kept it somewhat on an even keel. Still, that creates tension for anyone honest working in it. It is hardly surprising that so many have fled, often to join the many Republicans who have come out against Trump from outside advantage. Though here and today political betrayal doesn’t risk the firing squad, that may not much change the tug between ambition, loyalty to one’s group, and other kinds of commitments.

Professional denialism

June 23, 2020

Frits Böttcher will be remembered for marketing global warming denialism to aid the fossil fuel industry, rather than for his scientific work. That is not how anyone should want to be remembered. His journals tell the story:

While Böttcher’s simplistic but clear and crisp narrative about ‘the CO2 myth’ played well in the media, the majority of his work took place behind closed doors. On February 2 1994, he wrote DSM board member Ruud Selman that his objective was to provide ‘ammunition’ to opponents of climate policy and to ‘help them prevent all kinds of harping being pushed through’. The archived materials reveal that Böttcher’s strategy was very similar to that of his American colleagues. He would write a climate sceptic book or article, and his contacts and sponsors within the business community would then disseminate it amongst colleagues, politicians, journalists and, of course, the IPCC. And it worked. …

In September 1996, he told Clement Malin and Jaap Meinema of Texaco that, although ‘few reports and books are actually read,’ they do have an effect: ‘People realise that the opposition is growing.’

Note that Shell and Exxon’s own scientists were not fooled. But scientists never were the intended audience.

Race and education

June 22, 2020

When I was a freshman at the University of Texas, the new Physics-Math-Astronomy building recently had been renamed in honor of Robert Lee Moore. The famous mathematician had taught there for a half century before retiring. He would die later that year.

He didn’t like blacks. That may sound a strange thing to say today. Many varieties of racism were openly expressed then. Just a half dozen years earlier, George Wallace had made a third-party run for president, campaigning on an openly segregationist stance. He took 13% of the popular vote. And carried four of the deep south states. Most everyone I knew who voted for Nixon said they would have preferred Wallace, whom they viewed as more a kindred spirit. They just wouldn’t waste their vote on a third party.

It is popular today to think that this nation put discrimination behind it when it passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Laws take some time to change culture, especially laws as controversial as that one was. The losing side doesn’t immediately give up. It takes years for courts to limit legal challenges and create the case law that turns the broad sweep of legislation into concrete rules. It takes decades for those changes to propagate to corporations and universities and other institutions. Racism remained common. Moore was an example, not an exception. As a tenured professor, he could treat students pretty much as he wanted. Academic freedom had broader scope then.

I suspect RLM Hall now will be renamed. I chuckled at this bit from the article:

During the event, math professor Mike Starbird said the accusations of sexism against Moore were questionable.

Carolyn West, who pointed me to that article, studied mathematics under Moore. She says that he was both a sexist and a racist, the difference being that he liked women while he didn’t like blacks. Our social view includes affinities and expectations and norms. Those don’t all align, complicating both individual outlook and culture. She remembers Moore running black students out of his classes. Had I a minority child, I suspect that would upset me quite a bit more than the racist branding images now getting so much attention.

That kind of exclusion was a major impetus behind the Civil Rights Act. Many misunderstand why that law has had such large effect. The answer is that it targets corporations. It does not make individual bigotry illegal. It does not restrict the behavior of small employers. To this day, a Texas shrimper who wants to hire only other Vietnamese may legally do so. If he has less than fifteen employees.

What that law mandates is that larger employers must not discriminate on certain grounds. Nor banks in lending. Nor universities in treatment of students.

On the surface, that law affects only institutional behavior. But, oh, what a change that makes in culture. As corporations adapted to it, they required employees to stop expressing views that endorsed discriminatory intent. In everything from official business documents to the jokes pinned to bulletin boards. Even some expression in private became suspect. After all, it is hard for a corporation to argue that it doesn’t discriminate in hiring when an executive making those decisions is caught saying something bigoted. Even if in off hours.

Saying that corporations adapted, in this case, meant also that those working in corporate culture adapted. Doing so was easier for liberals than conservatives. Not just because they more likely hold modern views about race and sex. That was some of it. I suspect more importantly, they hold their views lightly, as personal preference or personal history or empirical nit, easily set to one side for the purpose of career, rather than as great truths about humanity.

When I was eleven, my mother took us to a church near the University of Texas campus. Its preacher taught that black history was a consequence of the curse of Ham. That wasn’t one of its major teachings. Just something the preacher would explain alongside other, more important matters. Despite that church’s old-fashioned teachings, and despite that the regular congregation was lily white, it would attract the occasional black coeds. In later years, I would hope that they were attending as a study for some sociology or religion class they were taking. I suspect the reality was more prosaic.

Social conservatives think their tradition does hold great truths, about sex and origins and social roles. They chafe that their truths have to be set aside. Which they see as oppression by the elites. They conjure all sorts of conspiracy theory to explain why that happens so much in the modern world.

The reality is simpler, if less interesting. Those who work for corporations have to fit into the constraints of corporate culture. And law has mandated that corporations adopt modern rather than traditional views of race and sex. Which they have been happy to do, because that generally fits well with expanding their markets.

Liberals as well as conservatives are likely to underestimate that mechanism. They may want to think that greater equality came through changes in churches and in media, through the efforts of neighborhoods and individuals. I suspect it mostly came from where we spend our lives working. That includes universities. Not just because they are covered by civil rights legislation, but because they have evolved to where they are administered and marketed much like corporations. Faculty no longer are a kind of secular high priest. They are just a middle ranked employee. The fact that someone is quite good at teaching people to be mathematicians means they can be replaced with someone else, also able to do that, who doesn’t rub the corporate ethic the wrong way. If that has been bad for academic freedom, it has been good for civil rights.

I took a topology course from Mike Starbird, some four decades past. I doubt the University of Texas is any worse because some of its Confederate statues have been removed. There will be more loyalty regarding the school song. What I hope is that undergraduates still find it a place where they can study literature and history and philosophy and mathematics and physics and zoology all at the same time, from excellent teachers. Today, with less hindrance because of their race or gender or sexual orientation.