The Museum at war

The British Museum:

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.

Lakoff on evangelicals

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

Understanding Trump « George Lakoff. One of the most frustrating things about being an evangelical Christian is the frequency with which you have to hear yourself described by people who don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.

Lakoff’s post is noteworthy because it’s wrong about evangelicals at their best and equally wrong about evangelicals at their worst. As everyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of Christianity knows, evangelicalism has never in any of its forms taught that if you follow God’s commandments you go to heaven. It has traditionally held that no one follows God’s commandments, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” that “by grace are you saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast.” These are among the most famous verses in the Bible, but clearly Lakoff is completely ignorant both of them and of the role they played in forming and perpetuating evangelicalism.

But do those verses characterize the foundational beliefs of most American evangelicals today? By no means. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have so exhaustively documented in multiple books — see especially Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers —Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals increasingly practice a religion that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And while the researchers’ focus is on younger people, “emerging adults,” MTD is not a position they have arrived at in spite of what they learned in church, it is the very model of how human beings relate to God that their churches taught them (whether explicitly or implicitly). The God of MTD and its twin, the Prosperity Gospel, isn’t interested in commandments and doesn’t send people to Hell, except maybe Hitler and a few others. He wants us to be happy and prosperous, according to our own definitions of happiness and prosperity.

In short, Lakoff’s imaginary Strict Father Religion, concocted in blithe indifference to the demonstrated facts on the ground — I think of C. S. Lewis’s old tutor Kirk: “You can have enlightenment for ninepence, but you prefer ignorance” — is characteristic of evangelicalism neither in its strongest (most historically and biblically grounded) forms nor in its desiccated Prosperity Deist forms. And, given that Lakoff wants to explain the popularity of Trump among evangelicals … well, the Donald isn’t exactly a Strict Father, is he? More like a sugar daddy, promising to use his unmatched personal charisma to make all the good white people safe and rich — the perfect Mortal God (to borrow a phrase from Hobbes) for Prosperity Deists.

Every time Ryan talks about patriotism, every time he talks about conservative ideals, the orange face of Trump seems to rise moon-like behind his shoulder — a reminder that this patriot and idealist is supporting, for the highest office in the republic and the most powerful position in the world, a man that he obviously knows (including, one assumes, from firsthand exposure) to be dangerous, unstable, unprincipled and unfit.  

Long after this election is over, that effect will endure. Every piety that the speaker utters, every moral posture that he strikes, will be received with derision by anyone who remembers the months that he spent urging Americans, albeit through gritted teeth, to make Donald Trump commander-in-chief.

Ross Douthat. All these leading political figures driving stakes through the heart of their integrity, and for what? — for Trump. That’s the thing I can’t get over: for Trump. For Trump! At least Esau got a mess of pottage for selling his birthright.

Starting out from the fact that the frustrated predominate among the early adherents of all mass movements and that they usually join of their own accord, it is assumed: 1) that frustration of itself, without any proselytizing prompting from the outside, can generate most of the peculiar characteristics of the true believer; 2) that an effective technique of conversion consists basically in the inculcation and fixation of proclivities and responses indigenous to the frustrated mind….  

The fact that both the French and the Russian revolutions turned into nationalist movements seems to indicate that in modern times nationalism is the most copious and durable source of mass enthusiasm, and that nationalist fervor must be tapped if the drastic changes projected and initiated by revolutionary enthusiasm are to be consummated.

Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (1951)

The love of humanity is a thing supposed to be professed only by vulgar and officious philanthropists, or by saints of a superhuman detachment and universality. As a matter of fact, love of humanity is the commonest and most natural of the feelings of a fresh nature, and almost every one has felt it alight capriciously upon him when looking at a crowded park or a room full of dancers. The love of those whom we do not know is quite as eternal a sentiment as the love of those whom we do know. In our friends the richness of life is proved to us by what we have gained; in the faces in the street the richness of life is proved to us by the hint of what we have lost.

— G. K. Chesterton, from Robert Browning

Consider the Khan affair. Were Trump’s remarks tasteless? Absolutely. But no more so — I’d actually say quite a bit less so — than countless other comments he’s made over the past year. But wait: How dare I! This is a Gold Star family! A grieving father and mother whose son, Army Captain Humayan Khan, gave the ultimate sacrifice for his country! What could be more horrifying than to slander them?

Here’s the thing: The moment Khizr and Ghazala Khan took the stage at the DNC to deliver a speech that savaged the Republican presidential nominee and endorsed the Democratic presidential nominee, they ceased to be any old “Gold Star family.” They became political actors and legitimate political targets. You can’t claim immunity from political attack after you’ve launched an attack of your own in primetime at a political convention.

Damon Linker. Overall, Damon makes a good argument in this post — you should read it all. But I think I can explain why people (in and out of the media) reacted as they did to Trump’s sneering at the Khans. It demonstrated something that many of us already knew, which is that Trump thinks about absolutely everything and everyone in terms of himself. The only thing that matters to Trump, in any and every situation, is: What do you think about me? Because if you praise me, I will praise you, and if you criticize me, I will make every effort to destroy you. That’s it — that’s his entire worldviw, that is the single principle on which he acts. Doesn’t matter whether your son died in combat, doesn’t matter if you are disabled, You come at me in any way, shape, or form and I will ruin you. And when we’re reminded that that the man who wants to be the leader of the most powerful nation on earth thinks that way we’re shaken, and will continue to be shaken no matter how many times he demonstrates it. Because the prospect of a man that profoundly, pathologically narcissistic holding the powers of an Imperial Presidency and the nuclear codes doesn’t really bear contemplating, if you have any moral sense at all.

Cypriot female sphinx


This Cypriot incense
burner was discovered in the lost ancient Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion. Over 2,500 years old,
this object would have been used for burning fragrances such as incense, an
important ritual both in Egyptian and Cypriot religious practice. This seated
sphinx, part-woman, part-lion, carries a bowl on its head. Since the 3rd
millennium BC in Egypt, a male sphinx embodied the powerful pharaoh. Greek and
Cypriot culture transformed it into a fantastical female creature and guardian
of borders, especially that between life and death. 

See more incredible objects
preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May – 27 November 2016).

Cypriot incense burner. Thonis-Heracleion, early 5th century BC. National Museum of Alexandria. 

Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

The Satanic Temple — which has been offering tongue-in-cheek support for the fallen angel in public arenas that have embraced prayer and parochial ceremonies — is bringing its fight over constitutional separation of church and state to the nation’s schools.

But the group’s plan for public schoolchildren isn’t actually about promoting worship of the devil. The Satanic Temple doesn’t espouse a belief in the existence of a supernatural being that other religions identify solemnly as Satan, or Lucifer, or Beelzebub. The Temple rejects all forms of supernaturalism and is committed to the view that scientific rationality provides the best measure of reality.

According to Mesner, who goes by the professional name of Lucien Greaves, “Satan” is just a “metaphorical construct” intended to represent the rejection of all forms of tyranny over the human mind.

— An After School Satan Club could be coming to your kid’s elementary school – The Washington Post. I do love me some metaphorical construct.


Petition to start using these names for tertiary colors…

This color wheel is from The Grammar of Painting and Engraving (1874) by Charles Blanc, translated from the French by Kate Newell Doggett. 

Our current exhibition, Color in a New Light explores the Smithsonian Libraries’ collection through the topic of color. It’s on display in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum  until March 2017, though you can visit the online exhibition, including a Digital Library for the exhibition. 

The sexual assault scandal that took down Baylor University’s president and revered football coach also found a problem with a bedrock of the school’s faith-based education: a student conduct code banning alcohol, drugs and premarital sex that may have driven some victims into silence.

Investigators with the Pepper Hamilton law firm who dug into Baylor’s response to sexual assault claims determined the school’s rigid approach to drugs, alcohol and sex and “perceived judgmental responses” to victims who reported being raped “created barriers” to reporting assaults. Some women faced the prospect of their family being notified.

“A number of victims were told that if they made a report of rape, their parents would be informed of the details of where they were and what they were doing,” said Chad Dunn, a Houston attorney who represents six women who have sued Baylor under the anonymous identification of Jane Doe.

Baylor’s strict conduct code may have silenced rape victims. Two thoughts:

1) Let it all come out, and the sooner the better. Let no element of the corruption remain hidden.

2) Say someone involved with insider trading were discovered and blackmailed by a co-worker: would we argue that the laws against insider trading were to blame? There is nothing wrong with a conduct code such as the one Baylor has. What is wrong, what is absolutely wicked, is the use of that code to pressure victims of sexual assault into hiding the truth of what happened to them.

The essay (or the essay-affect) at its best interrogates these questions of truth and verification, bringing the reader directly into the process of evaluating fact and fiction, and providing the reader with some kind of navigation for our current state in which truthfulness is such a fraught concept. In a contemporary landscape in which fact is so regularly and systematically disregarded, the essay responds not just by demanding its own truth, but by turning our attention to the means by which we evaluate the information around us. Biss, Nelson, Jameson and other modern essayists all work, as D’Agata says of Joe Brainard’s essay, ‘I Remember,’ to ‘engineer significance out of doubt.’

The frontispiece (above) offers a striking visual image of a “comprehensive” organization of knowledge. Extending from the bottom of the page to the top right side is a bookcase filled with books of all shapes and sizes. Its immensity is highlighted by a marked contrast with two much smaller men standing opposite it on the left-hand side of the page. One of the two men, cast in bright light, stands with an outstretched arm gesturing toward the towering shelf of books, whose spines are visible in a single glance. A vaulted ceiling extends across the top of the page and imbues the entire image with a sense of light-filled openness in which everything is illuminated and knowable. This image is a visualization of what Jöcher and Mencken claim their lexicon to be: an accessible, complete, and clear view of the entire scholarly world. It is an image of what eighteenth-century scholars referred to as the “empire of erudition” [Reich der Gelehrsamkeit]––a unified, homogenous realm of knowledge, theoretically accessible to all fellow scholars in print. The lexicon reveals, as though it were pulling back a curtain as suggested in the top left hand corner, an already organized and established set of knowledge.

And yet, this particular image of knowledge or learning is one of book bindings, closed books shelved one beside the other. And the sheer immensity of the bookshelf, how it dwarfs the two men opposite it, is ominous. With the unlimited vertical horizon, the bookshelf could expand infinitely. With every newly published book, it could continue to grow upward, but the two men would be left to gesture in vain toward a accumulating mass of print. Furthermore, the shelf may well be visible, but there is no ladder, no way to actually reach the books. Would its shadow not ultimately obscure those two men gazing skyward? And what was to prevent the bookshelf, teetering under the weight of ever-more print, from tipping over and crushing them?

Chad Wellmon on “Googling Before Google” — please read it all.

I put this appeal before any other observations on Dickens. First let us sympathise, if only for an instant, with the hopes of the Dickens period, with that cheerful trouble of change. If democracy has disappointed you, do not think of it as a burst bubble, but at least as a broken heart, an old love-affair. Do not sneer at the time when the creed of humanity was on its honeymoon; treat it with the dreadful reverence that is due to youth. For you, perhaps, a drearier philosophy has covered and eclipsed the earth. The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,’ over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world. But if we are to understand the story which follows, we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere If, then, you are a pessimist, in reading this story, forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think so clear; deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture; give up the very jewel of your pride; abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.

the Bread of Life

A sermon preached to the Episcopal clergy of Dallas , April 13, 2016. The texts were the martyrdom of Stephen (Acts 7:51 – 8:1) and the “I am the bread of life” passage, John 6:30-35.

Starting with Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in the 1930s, we have in the last 80 years or so seen an endless procession of books offering us strategies for … well, winning friends and influencing people.

It appears that Stephen did not read any of them.

When I read this passage from the Acts of the Apostles I find myself remembering Frederick Buechner’s line: “Nobody ever invited a prophet home for dinner more than once.”

And yet, when Stephen chastises his audience for their failures to listen to the prophets, while we’re told they are enraged, they keep listening. They keep listening, perhaps, because they realize this is the sort of thing that prophets do. Only a few years earlier they had heard John the baptizer talking to them in this way, demanding their repentance. And of course a long line of prophets had preceded him in such denunciations. Possibly by this point in the history of Israel listening to this kind of speech had become a kind of performance art, something that people might talk about later on and say, “Now, that was good. He got us worked up there, didn’t he? Of course, he’s no Jeremiah, but still…”

But then Stephen goes too far. Denouncing the children of Israel for their unfaithfulness – well, that’s par for the course, that’s part of the game, is it not? But saying that this Jesus who was so recently crucified, who suffered the most shameful of deaths, is standing at the right hand of God? That cannot be tolerated.

To “stand at the right hand of God”: this is, after all, a Messianic designation — see for instance the opening of Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” It seems likely that it was this claim for Jesus that broke the crowd’s patience with Stephen — especially since many of those listening to Stephen had shouted, not many days earlier, “Crucify him!” But in any case Stephen goes to his death, the first martyr for the cause of Jesus the Christ.

If we turn from this pivotal event in the early life of the Church, and go back in time to our Gospel reading, a moment from early in Jesus’s public ministry — here too we have a scene describing an encounter between a prophet and his audience, but this one is less contentious. No one is enraged; no one gets stoned; but the audience is, shall we say, somewhat skeptical.

(This is one of those relatively rare instances when the lectionary gives us only part of a story; you can’t really make sense of what’s happening here without looking a little earlier and a little later in the story. It’s easy to see why the lectionary-makers did this: John 6 is so rich, and so absolutely central to the Gospel, that it gets broken into small chunks for our rumination. But we need to keep a somewhat larger piece in mind when when we’re chewing on one of those small chunks.)

Now, the skepticism of this crowd is not invincible. They’re willing to be won over. All they’re asking for is a sign. In general, Jesus is extremely unsympathetic to demands for signs: as he says elsewhere, “A wicked and adulterous generation seeks after a sign.” But this time he lets it go — which is interesting, because if a crowd ever deserves a good tongue-lashing, it’s this one.

Why? Because they had just received, one day earlier, a sign, an astonishing one: the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus had filled their bellies, and they liked that, so they’ve climbed into boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee to find him and get a refill. Jesus knows what they want, and says so — this is from just before our passage for today — :“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”

So he’s onto them, but they’re still determined to wheedle something out of him. “Look, Rabbi,” they say — they start this conversation by referring to him respectfully as Rabbi, teacher — “we’re not here for the food, far from it, we just want you to demonstrate your authority so we will know that you are indeed speaking and acting on God’s behalf. So what would be a good sign? … Now, how about manna, or something like manna — bread, maybe? That worked for Moses.”

A transparent ruse! And yet Jesus does not lash out at them. He is remarkably patient. He just wants them to understand the situation. They got fed yesterday, but today they’re hungry again. In fact, even if what they really wanted was a sign, they would be hungry for a new sign tomorrow, too. Signs are not any more filling than bread. Wouldn’t they prefer the bread from God that gives life to the world?

Indeed they would. They like this idea very much. On the basis of this offer they elevate their respect for Jesus: before he had been Rabbi but now they call him Lord — Kyrie. Now, this is a curious form of address. It doesn’t mean the LORD God, which is why many modern translations render the word as “Sir.” But that may be misleading too, in the other direction. That Messianic passage from Psalm 110 I mentioned earlier — “The LORD says to my lord,” etc. — in the Septuagint “my lord” is also Kyrie.

So this crowd is treating Jesus with extreme deference — as long as they think they have a chance of manipulating him into providing them this bread from Heaven that gives life to the world. Because wouldn’t that be great, to have such bread? Maybe it would last a long time; maybe it could be stored safely; maybe they wouldn’t have to row back and forth across the lake to chase down this rabbi, or prophet, or whatever he is, to get more of it.

Unfortunately for them, Jesus doesn’t cooperate. He simply says: “I am the bread of life” — a statement that means nothing to them. (If we follow the rest of John’s narrative, we see that this is but the first of a series of “I am” sayings, some of which — especially “Before Abraham was, I AM” — get Jesus into a lot of trouble. But I don’t think anybody could have read a claim to divinity into this first “I am” statement. It only seems portentous in retrospect.

This much is clear, though: Jesus is telling them to stop thinking of their bellies, stop trying to manipulate him into performing a work that will get them what they already want. They need to turn to … to him. Not to his message, not even at this moment to the Father who sent him, but to himself. (“I and the Father are one,” he will explain later. “He who has seen me has seen the Father.”)

So, no, he doesn’t cooperate. And, we’re told in verse 41, the crowd “grumbled” about him. They’re not angry — not yet — but they grow irritable. He isn’t what we thought he was. Or thought he might be.

If you take the whole of John 6 and link it to the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, you can see the arc of the natural, unredeemed person’s attitude towards Jesus and the message of the Gospel. First curiosity; then perhaps excitement; then discontent; then hatred. What begins with the gathering together to hear a new voice ends with the flinging of stones, or, if we do things judicially rather than in the heat of temper, the nailing of a body to a cross.

And this happens because we want Jesus to give us the food we already know, already like. In our natural state, we can’t abide it when he insists on giving us instead the food that, though we refuse to acknowledge it, we desperately need. One of the saddest aspects of the Gospel story is this: only when they do not yet know what Jesus offers do the people in the crowd make requests of him. Once they hear what he has come to give them, they turn aside. They go away.

May we never turn aside. May we never prefer our familiar food, our daily bread, to the food that Jesus offers: himself. May we say, this day and every day, “Lord, give us this bread always.” And may we be granted the great, great privilege of sharing this food with others who have never tasted it. Amen.

back when he was famous

“Well, God is almighty, I guess. But I think he’s on vacation right now because of all the crap that’s happening in the world, ’cause it wasn’t like this back when he was famous.”

— A 16-year-old boy from Texas, as reported in Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2009)


This op-ed by Paul Vallely is one of the more contemptible things I’ve read in a while, and given that I’m on Twitter, that’s saying something. It is also thoroughly incoherent: the argument that cites the fact “Father Hamel was going about his lifelong business in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray as an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness, kindness and love for the people in his community” as a reason not to canonize him is more truly “senseless” than the murder itself — especially since Vallely admits that Fr. Hamel’s death amply “fulfills the traditional criteria” for martyrdom.

The incoherence doesn’t stop there. Vallely writes, “Some will react to that threat by unwittingly accepting the terrorists’ agenda, as the archbishop of Rouen appeared to do when he described the killing of Father Hamel as an ‘assassination’ — as though a provincial priest would be a target.” But Fr. Hamel was a target, indeed was successfully targeted: isn’t that obvious by the fact that his murder was not only enacted but filmed? (He just wasn’t targeted for being famous. But non-famous people can be assassinated too: consider the police officers recently assassinated in Dallas and Baton Rouge, solely because they were police officers.) Does Vallely really think the murderers were waving knives about randomly and Fr. Hamel’s neck happened to get in the way?

But worse than the incoherence is this: the question of whether Fr. Hamel is genuinely a martyr is one that Vallely desperately wishes to avoid. For him, the Church is not to acknowledge its martyrs unless such acknowledgment serves what Vallely believes to be the proper political calculation of the moment. For him this is the key: “we must resist the notion that a fundamental clash of civilizations is the issue.” Nothing can be done that stands a chance of feeding a political narrative which Vallely finds tasteless. Thus: “The real problem is the pathology of a perverse minority of extremists with distorted notions of holy war and martyrdom.” Ah yes, the real problem at last! This is moral equivalence at its most loathsome: those who would seek Fr. Hamel’s canonization are morally indistinguishable from his murderers, because both belong to that “perverse minority of extremists with distorted notions of … martyrdom.”

So let not the Church call its martyrs martyrs, lest by doing so she fall into “extremism.” Let not the ancient commitment to honor the martyrs of Christ get in the way of political convenience. Let not Fr. Hamel be honored, lest some political benefit accrue to Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. God forbid!

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

A lot of times in our culture there’s this de facto humanist swagger that says, “Oh yeah, religion. We used to do that shit.”  But my advice would be, to anyone who wanted it: reconfigure your understanding of “religion,” and make it exactly that which will give you that airport state of mind more often. And then go into the existing traditions and cull through them to make it that. Or to try to find the authentic elements of those traditions that are really about that. ‘Cause that’s really what they’re about.

George Saunders. Listen to the whole thing to find out what he means by “that airport state of mind,” but basically he means that heightened state of awareness and love for the people closest to you that you feel when you’re saying goodbye to them at the airport.

It’s an old, old story by now, isn’t it? — the idea that you can carefully remove everything you don’t like about “religion” — like picking the anchovies off your pizza, and who ordered anchovies, who does that, some idiot — and keep all the stuff that makes you feel good. No obligations, no beliefs you’re not sure you can sign on to, just “mindfulness” and a full, full heart. As Jake says in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Eliot at the Institute for Advanced Study

Finally there was T. S. Eliot, who had long been both Oppenheimer’s favorite poet and [Oppenheimer’s old friend Francis] Fergusson’s. Indeed, over the years Fergusson had published many essays about various aspects of Eliot’s work. Eliot, too, came in 1948, arriving while Oppenheimer was still in Europe. [Freeman] Dyson remembers him as being “prim and shy.” Eliot, he says, “appeared each day in the lounge at teatime, sitting by himself with a newspaper and a teacup.” Neither Dyson nor any of his contemporaries could muster the courage to approach him. “None of our gang of young scientists,” Dyson recalls, “succeeded in penetrating the barrier of fame and reserve that surrounded Eliot like a glass case around a mummy.” [Abraham] Pais says he “was dying to have conversations with Eliot but refrained from approaching him, less out of shyness than from an ingrained sense not to bother him with trivia.” He did, however, have one conversation with the great poet, when they happened to share a lift. “This is a nice elevator,” Eliot remarked, to which Pais replied: “Yes, this is a nice elevator.” “That,” Pais writes, “was all the conversation with Eliot I ever had.”

— Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center

DFW on “our literary culture”

It’s actually not true that our literary culture is nihilistic, at least not in the radical sense of Turgenev’s Bazarov. For there are certain tendencies we believe are bad, qualities we hate and fear. Among these are sentimentality, naïveté, archaism, fanaticism. It would probably be better to call our own art’s culture now one of congenital skepticism. Our intelligentsia distrust strong belief, open conviction. Material passion is one thing, but ideological passion disgusts us on some deep level. We believe that ideology is now the province of the rival SIGs and PACs all trying to get their slice of the big green pie … and, looking around us, we see that indeed it is so. But Frank’s Dostoevsky would point out (or more like hop up and down and shake his fist and fly at us and shout) that if this is so, it’s at least partly because we have abandoned the field.

— David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”

how partisanship disables thinking

A perfect example:

Let’s pause to think about this for two seconds: How likely is it that the Vice-Presidential candidate of a major party — or any party — would stand up to speak at his party’s nationally televised convention wearing a lapel pin featuring the flag of another country? I think we might generously estimate the likelihood as: zero. And if through some miraculous suspension of all reason some such candidate did that … Honduras? Of all countries?

And yet that’s the assumption someone tweeting for the North Carolina Republican Party instantly made. It’s a classic example of how political partisanship completely disables the brain. Its circuits overwhelmed by contempt for the political enemy, the partisan mind ceases to function at even an elementary level.

Candidate keywords

Keywords more likely to appear in Clinton’s corpus include women, families, economy, together, work, American (and America), future, rights, create, men, growth, equal, fair, deserve, global, challenges, threats, opportunity, Israeli, help, stronger, students, income, invest, raising, everyone, God, children, abortion, responsibility, and vigorous.

Keywords in Trump’s corpus that were statistically more likely to appear when compared to Clinton’s were going, very, Hillary, I, they, are, it, I’m, don’t, great, China, really, billion, nobody, Mexico, immigration, disaster, Islamic, nice, mean, folks, me, somebody, people, ok, tremendous, problem, thought, totally, radical, anybody, got, amazing, border, rigged, foreign, money, worst, literally, trillions, terrorism, corrupt, deleted, destroyed, killing, oppressive, bigger, nobody, is, sad, and tired.

Trump and Clinton, By Their Words

how little do we know

How little do we know how other people live in the houses close to us! We see the houses looking like our own, and we see the people come out of them looking like ourselves. But a Chinaman is not more different from the English John Bull than is No. 10 from No. 11. Here there are books, paintings, music, wine, a little dilettanti getting-up of subjects of the day, a little dilettanti thinking on great affairs, perhaps a little dilettanti religion; few domestic laws, and those easily broken; few domestic duties, and those easily evaded; breakfast when you will, with dinner almost as little binding, with much company and acknowledged aptitude for idle luxury. That is life at No. 10. At No. 11 everything is cased in iron. There shall be equal plenty, but at No. 11 even plenty is a bondage. Duty rules everything, and it has come to be acknowledged that duty is to be hard. So many hours of needlework, so many hours of books, so many hours of prayer! That all the household shall shiver before daylight, is a law, the breach of which by any member either augurs sickness or requires condign punishment. To be comfortable is a sin; to laugh is almost equal to bad language. Such and so various is life at No. 10 and at No. 11.

— Anthony Trollope, Ayala’s Angel (1881)

two parties

My friend Ross Douthat disagrees, mostly, with Avik Roy’s contention that the Republican Party is dead, but by contrast I suspect that Roy is too optimistic. He thinks that some kind of renewed GOP will eventually rise from the ashes, but I doubt that. I don’t think that the rise of Trump marked the end of the Republican Party as we know it, but rather that the party’s incoherent and brainlessly reflexive responses to Trump, whether positive or negative, were the equivalent of the last few electrochemical twitches of a corpse. The current donor base will pay for one or two more decades of artificial respiration, but no more, and I suspect that as early as 2024 the GOP will be completely irrelevant to American politics, at least at the national level.

At that point we’ll still have a two-party system, but the two parties will be the Neoliberal and the Socialist — basically, the two main wings of the current Democratic Party. And I’m not sure that, when that happens, we’ll be any worse off than we are now.

Wolfe on Chomsky

I won’t vouch for the scholarly accuracy of Tom Wolfe’s skewering of Noam Chomsky, but oh my goodness is it fun to read. (Subscribe to get around the paywall, and you’ll get an essay from me next month!) And he’s channelling in his own inimitable style critiques made by a good many other linguists. At 85 — eighty-five — he is still a first-rate researcher and he writes like a deranged but virtuosic songbird.

Only wearily could Chomsky endure traditional linguists who thought fieldwork was essential and wound up in primitive places, emerging from the tall grass zipping their pants up. They were like the ordinary flycatchers in Darwin’s day coming back from the middle of nowhere with their sacks full of little facts and buzzing about with their beloved multi-language fluency. But what difference did it make, knowing all those native tongues? Chomsky made it clear he was elevating linguistics to the altitude of Plato’s transcendent eternal universals. They, not sacks of scattered facts, were the ultimate reality, the only true objects of knowledge. Besides, he didn’t enjoy the outdoors, where “the field” was. He was relocating the field to Olympus. Not only that, he was giving linguists permission to stay air-conditioned. They wouldn’t have to leave the building at all, ever again . . . no more trekking off to interview boneheads in stench-humid huts. And here on Olympus, you had plumbing.

Fair? I don’t know. But oh so delightfully wicked.

a memory

Reading this essay sent me down the twisted paths of memory….

When I was twenty and in college, I came home for a weekend and almost as soon as crossed the threshold my fifteen-year-old sister came up to me and said, “Did you know that Mama and Daddy have been married before?”

I stood still for a moment. I asked her what she was talking about, and she told me that she and my mother had been sitting in the living room one evening when she, my sister, asked, out of the blue and for no reason she was aware of, “Were you married before you married Daddy?”

Mama said, “Yes.”

Which led to further questions and a few, sometimes reluctant, answers. These my sister shared with me. Had our father been married before? Yes. Had either of them had been married more than once before their current marriage? No. Had those previous marriages had produced any children? My mother said that we were her only children, but my father had a daughter by his first marriage. Which meant that we had a half-sister we’d never met, and whose existence was a complete blank to us.

When I learned all this, my mother saw how stunned I was; my father wasn’t home. I fairly staggered upstairs to my room and sat there thinking. What else didn’t I know? Much of my early childhood was shrouded in a kind of mist: I knew my father had been in prison for much of it, and I had been raised by my mother and grandmother, but I didn’t know what he had done and had only a vague sense of how long he was in prison — I knew he had been in twice, and we had visited him at a federal prison in Indiana and then, later, at the minimum-security prison at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. (We lived 90 miles away in Birmingham.) What other dark stories were there to tell and to hear?

A few hours later my father came home, and after my mother told him what had happened, he came up to my room. I believe this was the first time he ever did that; I cannot remember any prior occasion, and insofar as I had thought about that at all, I suppose I was pleased at the respect for my privacy. In any case, that evening he opened the door and stood in the doorway.

“I hear you’re upset,” he said.

Well … Yeah, I said. I mean, I’m twenty years old and just found out that both of my parents have been married before, and I have a half-sister.

To this he said nothing.

I guess I’m just wondering why you never told us.

“Because it’s none of your goddamned business,” he said, and then turned, closed the door, and went back downstairs. He never came to my room again.

Whose Fault is Trump?

1) Trump.

2) A Republican Party that for decades has, in its sycophantic panting after a hyperrich donor class, ignored the people who have now turned to Trump as their only savior.

3) A television-generated cult of pure celebrity, one which makes no distinction between being famous for having achieved something significant (in political life, for instance) and being famous for being famous.

4) Social media, which generally impede rational thought and inflame hatreds and resentment of all kinds — but especially the racist/nativist wing of social media, which is highly effective in making ludicrous falsehoods disguised as “facts” go viral.

5) A mainstream media world that, by devoting decades to scorning and misrepresenting working-class people — and indeed anyone in flyover land — has ensured that its attempts to correct the falsehoods mentioned above will be seen as merely more leftist propaganda.

6) George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for dramatically expanding the power of an un-checked, un-balanced executive branch, thus making the prospect of a Trump presidency far, far more frightening than it would have been in an age in which Presidents respected the separation of powers.

7) American schools, especially public schools, for their long-term abandonment of instruction in history — since even the slightest acquaintance with history would reveal Trump’s real character as a reflexively narcissistic demagogue, a would-be strongman, who has nothing but contempt for the hard-won, beautifully designed American political system that has served us well for more than 200 years.

8) American churches, especially evangelical churches, for a nearly-complete indifference to Christian formation, and an unwillingness to confront the possibility that faithful Christian presence in the world might be counter-cultural — that God might demand something from us, some hard and costly love, rather than seeking merely give us more of the treasure we already crave.

the limits of our mourning

Robert Macfarlane and Adrian Cooper write,

It is still shocking to read that 46 per cent of ancient semi-natural woodland in the UK was either destroyed or replaced with conifers between 1933 and 1983. Individual trees were killed by being pierced with large ‘Jim Green’ injectors containing ‘2-4-5 T’ (a derivative of ‘Agent orange’), or by the hacking of billhook-wounds into which Ammonium Sulphamate crystals were rubbed. Yet the visual and historic loss during those notorious “locust years” is abstract to many of us, to those who didn’t grow up in those woods, through those times. The same can be said of elm, as Rackham (again) pointed out: “Since the last Elm Disease a new generation has grown up to accept the absence of big elms as normal.”

Can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime? Is that really how far our empathy and anxiety stretches?

I think these are powerful questions, indeed the right questions to ask, and I completely endorse Macfarlane and Cooper’s advocacy for the natural world of Britain. But I just wish there were more people who could think this way about our moral and spiritual inheritance (which, rightly understood, includes political culture as well, I am moved to say after two nights of the Republican convention).

Are there ways to make vivid to us the rich inheritance that our parents and grandparents lost, or gave away? Not everything that our ancestors believed, but the best of it? Or “can we only mourn what is known to us, lost in our lifetime?” My kingdom for historical imagination. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention.

Mac status update

Last year, when I upgraded from Yosemite to El Capitan, my MacBook’s wi-fi stopped working. I could occasionally connect to the internet, but only for a few minutes at a time. However, if my connection stalled out and I needed it desperately, I could turn the wi-fi off and turn it back on and get maybe 90 seconds of connectivity.

So I went back to Yosemite, only to discover that on Yosemite, on this computer anyway, Bluetooth doesn’t work at all. That’s a problem for me because (a) I often use the computer with an external monitor and a wireless keyboard, and (b) I listen to a lot of music through a Bluetooth speaker.

So I had to choose between wi-fi and Bluetooth.

As a result of all this, when the Sierra beta came out I decided to give it a try. Good news: wi-fi works! Bluetooth works!

However, now my machine won’t reliably connect to my external monitor. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all. But things have been bad enough for the past year or so that I call this an improvement.

Angkor Wat

This transformation of legend into fact has been a theme of the LiDAR surveys. Angkor’s huge population is described in temple inscriptions and reports written by Chinese travelers who visited the city during the 12th century reign of King Suryavarman II, who built Angkor Wat. But historical sources are often exaggerated or incomplete. Plus, it was difficult for Western researchers to believe that the Khmer Empire’s great city was home to almost a million people, dwarfing European cities of the same era. Now, such facts are impossible to deny.

playing Todd

I think Todd Rundgren is one of the great pop songwriters, and it occurred to me recently that I’d like to learn to play a few of his songs on the guitar. “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference” is one of his loveliest tunes, so I thought I would try that. I did my usual googling for tablature, and (it doesn’t always work out this way) quickly found a very accurate one.

Turns out that to make my way through this one little pop song I have to be able to play seventeen chords. And some of them are kind of peculiar — the sort that sound wrong until you play the next chord and go “Oh right.”

This tells me some things. The first thing it tells me is that the song was almost certainly written on the piano, and indeed it would be much easier to play on a piano, should one actually know how to do that. (Ahem.)

But it also tells me that as a craftsman of songwriting Todd is kind of a freak. My shoulders sagged at the thought of negotiating seventeen different chords in around three minutes, so I went through the song to see if some of them could be simplified or eliminated: sometimes a careful and thorough tablature-writer includes transitional chords that can be left out with little harm to the song’s integrity. But not in this case: every one of those chords was necessary, and changing or eliminating any of them yielded a significant loss of musical nuance and texture.

I think the writing of catchy pop songs — even really complex and musically sophisticated ones — came too easily to Todd. A couple of years after Something/Anything? he wrote a song called “Izzat Love.” Give it a listen. It’s a super-super-catchy little number. But as the song goes along it keeps getting faster, not dramatically but noticeably — and then after less than two minutes you hear a sudden squeal as Todd hits the fast-forward on the tape deck. It’s unsettling, Todd’s contempt for his own facility; as though he’s telling us Do you see how easy this shit is? God, I’m sick of it. It’s time to do something else.


One of the highlights of my summer has been reading Luke Pearson’s Hilda books. I like the description that Alexandra Lange gives:

For such a small girl, Hilda is about to get very big, and I am not at all surprised. My five-year-old daughter brought the first book home from a friend’s house, and it took reading only the first few pages, beautifully laid out, with the rich color palette of a Nordic sweater, to know that Hilda was something special. Trolberg may have a complex of bell towers (bells keep trolls at bay, we learn), but it also has a glassy downtown à la Houston. “All of these stories are riffs on folktales that are as old as time, that have taken a hard left turn through Luke’s imagination and all of these contemporary pop-cultural sensibilities,” Kurt Mueller, the executive vice-president at Silvergate Media, which will produce the Hilda series, said. (The company’s other series include “The Octonauts” and “Peter Rabbit.”) “Like the movies of Miyazaki, she feels totally of the moment, but she’s reacting to something that feels ancient and archetypal,” Mueller said. The nostalgic Northern European setting recalls Miyazaki’s romanticism, while Hilda’s communion with the conjoined natural and spirit worlds recalls San from “Princess Mononoke” or Satsuki from “My Neighbor Totoro.”

My first point of comparison was Lewis Carroll’s Alice, though Pearson said that he never thought of her. But, greeted by a little girl in an unchanging outfit, who is confronted with all manner of creatures great and small, in landscapes giant and miniaturized, who else are we to think of? What’s markedly different with Hilda is the attitude with which she greets her wonderland. She does not fall down a hole but strides, prepared with sketchbook and satchel, into the wind and weather. The first words of the first book, “Hilda and the Troll,” are delivered by a radio announcer: “But tonight clouds rolling in from the east … temperatures remain mild … with the likelihood of heavy rain.” Hilda, reading a tome on trolls at the breakfast table, rushes outside her red, peak-roofed cabin to see storm clouds forming over an adjacent peak. “Mum! Mum! It’s going to rain tonight! Can I sleep in the tent?” And Mum says yes.

Said it, meant it:

Illustrated maps, folktales, creatures, Iceland, Miyazaki, heroines, “landscapes giant & miniaturized”? Sign me up.

Seriously, though, Moomins + My Neighbor Totoro + Alice + Princess Mononoke. I’ll add some Pippi too. ?

Then the books came, I read them, and loved them, and I shared two images. See also the additonal links at the bottom of my bookmark of Alexandra Lange’s review.