Links. Good Friday.

Happy (yes, Happy!), Holy and Blessed Good Friday!

The following are links to stuff I found fascinating, amusing or both:

A. Mike Flynn on the history leading up to the 1st Crusade. Just wow. I had some inklings on about 5% of that stuff. The Crusades have long been on that nagging list of things I know I need to read up on A LOT more (1), things critical to understanding the present and the past. This is a great start to that project.

Here, the great OFloinn goes through the state of affairs leading up to the rise of Islam. One point I’ve made (with far, far less erudition) is that Islam happened to arise at a point in history when there were no great powers in the immediate neighborhood, and only one – the Eastern Roman Empire – anywhere in the West that could put up any kind of sustained fight. If Mohammed’s heirs had had to lead their armies against Rome in its vigor, or Alexander in his, the Greece of Athens and Sparta or even a Pharoah’s Egypt or Persia under Xerxes or Babylonia or Summaria or the Assyrians at their peaks, their road to victory would have been much, much more difficult. Without the initial victories against the tired, declawed remnants of long-past empires, perhaps the recruiting of future Jihadis would not have gone so well? Certainly, the funding of those far-flung armies would have been near impossible!

But that’s not what happened. The rise of Islam is a tragedy, perhaps the great tragedy of history.

B. More Flynn, here talking about an event I knew nothing about (to my shame!) the reading of an anti-Nazi encyclical on Palm Sunday from every Catholic pulpit in Germany. Seems the Pope wasn’t happy with the way things were going: 

8. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

9. Beware, Venerable Brethren, of that growing abuse, in speech as in writing, of the name of God as though it were a meaningless label, to be affixed to any creation, more or less arbitrary, of human speculation. Use your influence on the Faithful, that they refuse to yield to this aberration. Our God is the Personal God, supernatural, omnipotent, infinitely perfect, one in the Trinity of Persons, tri-personal in the unity of divine essence, the Creator of all existence. Lord, King and ultimate Consummator of the history of the world, who will not, and cannot, tolerate a rival God by His side.

10. This God, this Sovereign Master, has issued commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. As God’s sun shines on every human face so His law knows neither privilege nor exception. Rulers and subjects, crowned and uncrowned, rich and poor are equally subject to His word. From the fullness of the Creators’ right there naturally arises the fullness of His right to be obeyed by individuals and communities, whoever they are. This obedience permeates all branches of activity in which moral values claim harmony with the law of God, and pervades all integration of the ever-changing laws of man into the immutable laws of God.

11. None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are “as a drop of a bucket” (Isaiah xI, 15).

So, being a Nazi would be *bad* in the eyes of the Church, evil even? And the modern demand that we make God conform to our whims and the whims of the state – not good, either? The story Flynn relays of how this encyclical got created and promulgated is wonderful and terrifying.

The whole encyclical is wonderful. A pope who minces few words.

C. Larry Correia has got his mountain. What more could a gun-toting, liberal-apoplexy-causing (but I repeat myself) large, manly, successful and prosperous writer want? How about a tank?  (2) It’s the little things in life:

If I slap a snow plow on there, and I can even pretend it is practical. Because tank. How often do you see cars slid off the side of the road in winter? All the time. How often do you see tanks? Never. See?

Commuter lane? Hell. Whatever lane I’m in is the commuter lane, and that includes if I feel like driving into oncoming traffic.

D. The description of the Good Friday liturgy from the 1914 Catholic Encyclopedia.

There is, perhaps, no office in the whole liturgy so peculiar, so interesting, so composite, so dramatic as the office and ceremonial of Good Friday.

It is good to see how much has been retained in the Ordinary Form. Although we don’t get prayers quite like this anymore:

Let us pray, dearly beloved, to God the Father almighty, that He would cleanse the world of all errors: take away diseases, drive away famine, open prisons, break chains, grant a sure return to travellers, health to the sick, and a safe haven to those at sea.

Off now to gather up an old friend who is in town who, while not Catholic or even Christian, says he wants to go to Good Friday services – we’re heading to St. Margaret Mary’s in Oakland to attend Services in the Extraordinary Form – a first for me, and why I was reading that Catholic Encyclopedia article above. If you have a minute, please pray for my friend and his family, who are having a very rough time at the moment.

  1. Off the top of my head: French Revolution, Chinese history, Europe in general from maybe 1500 – 1900, post WWII Europe/Cold War, classical economics (Mises, who I’ve read not at all), Thomas (I mean, really, I should have a large chunk of Thomas more or less in RAM, rather than feeble memories of about a 100 pages stashed in my brain’s Rare Books Room). For that matter, Aristotle – just MORE! Then there are those huge subjects I’ve read maybe one book on – modern Middle East, Balkan history, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Alexander the Great. And on and on. I figure you get the list, start somewhere, and die (preferably at some point in the not too near future) trying. If I think much about how much I have to read + how long it takes me to read stuff + how much time I have or are likely to have to read – it is to despair!
  2. A British Chieftain. Of course, the International Lord of Hate would know, ‘natch, where one shops for a real main-line battle tank. He will be looking for something a little roomier, as those Brit tanks get a little cramped inside. I humbly suggest this.

Politics of Professions: More Fun With Partisan Graphs

Maybe you’ve seen this very cool graph showing the “politics of professions”?

Here’s a screen grab of a small part of it:

Politics by Profession 1

Below these amusing comparisons is a set of little colored circles for each considered profession that you can click on and expand:

Politics by Profession 2

These are really fun, and largely confirm a number of biases. Here, we see that the Media and Academia are leftist strongholds, or that most people who can think shun the right – take your pick.

But, alas! What you think you’re seeing – what the title “Which way does your occupation lean?” suggests you are seeing – you are not seeing. Once again, just a tiny amount of curiosity and research reveals that this lovely, award-winning graph doesn’t say what it claims to say. And it’s the usual suspects that render this graph, like so many before it, largely meaningless:

Method. Well? How did the authors arrive at these numbers? Nowhere stated – which, to put it mildly, is not a good sign.

Data source. Where did these numbers come from? As highlighted in the title to the first screengrab above, “campaign contribution data from the FEC”. Googling that directs one to the FEC website. There’s a lot of stuff on that site, I don’t have all day to sift through it, so here are some preliminary considerations:

  1. Are we only considering those who have made political contributions in some manner to one of the two major parties? And in a manner that requires the FEC keep track of it? This means if I’m a mathematician, for example, who votes consistently for one party or the other but can’t bring myself to part with any cash to fund them, I don’t count? Isn’t that *most* people, or at least a huge percentage of people?
  2. What period is covered? The database runs from 1997 to approximately the present. The same person – the Donald, for example – might change who and what he supports over time. Sticking with this example, he might be a staunch and generous Hillary supporter right up until he decides he needs to be a Republican President. Is this accounted for? How?
  3. An awful lot of people in business will give to *both* parties.(a) If I’m an investment banker, I might largely vote Republican but *always* contribute to Democratic causes – it’s just simple prudence. It’s just business. Investment Bankers, according to this graphic, are split right down the middle – I strongly suspect that this is not the result of a neat and fundamental split in partisan loyalties right down the middle as it is a result of a sort of natural selection: investment bankers would be idiots NOT to make sure that candidates from BOTH parties get a cut. Is this addressed, somehow, in the graphic?
  4. If I give $100 to Democratic causes and $1,000,000 to Republican causes, is that accounted for?

Classifying Professions. Who determines the list of professions? Who decides where the line falls between, say, a mathematician and a statistician and a data analyst?

  1. Many people have multiple professions, or their work straddles a number of professional classifications. (Am I a strategic planner? A sales manager? A market researcher? A content creator? A pricing analyst? A product manager? In my current job, the answer is ‘Yes’.)  Is that addressed? How?
  2. Are these claims verified? In other words, does the person donating to a partisan cause get to just say what their profession is? If I say I’m a rocket scientist, do I get any push back?

This is similar to the problem of asking people in exit polls to say what their highest level of education is – the guy with the degree from a barber college can say he is a college grad, while the gal who dropped out in the 6th year of a nuclear physics degree might say she isn’t. Even if they answer truthfully (and what would make them?) the answers are not giving you a true picture: that college grads (assumed against most of the evidence to be the smart people) voted for X, while those with no college degree (assumed to be the dumb people – you know, like Gates, Jobs, Wozniak)  voted against it. So if I ask you your profession, and you once had a bit part in Galaxy Quest but now wait tables and live with your mother, you put ‘actor’ as your profession, right? Or if I got a government grant once to try to sell small towns on putting in solar panels, I’m an entrepreneur, right? Me, I’ve helped people in far-away places figure out the math involved in leasing an airplane – so I’m an international financier, right?

It’s fun to imagine that this set of little graphs tells us, for example, that 81% of roofers are Republicans while 80% of philanthropists are Democrats. But that is not what it is telling us. What it is telling us, most likely, is that 80% of the donations by count (not amount) made by people who a) made political donations tracked by the FEC since 1997,  and b) self-reported that they were philanthropists went to candidates/PACs/causes/whatever that the FEC classified as Democratic.

Maybe. The lack of any explanation other than the general statement that the data came from the FEC inclines me to assume the most simple approach was used: add ’em up by claimed profession across all the years, divide the Democratic total by the gross total to get a percent, slap a graph on the numbers, and voila! You have a hot steaming pile posing as information. Could be wrong, but don’t know how I’d find out.

 

a. If you think that one of the major purposes of all this FEC disclosure isn’t so that the elected officials can check up on to whom they owe favors and to whom smackdowns, you need to read up on how, say, LBJ operated. He *always* kept score, and knew *exactly* what he owed and was owed from everybody he worked with, down to cub reporters. The essential part of implementing Callicles’ model of political virtue (Punish your enemies, reward your friends, indulge your every whim) is knowing who is a political enemy and who a political friend. That, and, I suppose, cultivating memorable whims.

A Diversion Through Muir Wood

On the Beaten Path 2
On a path on a hillside in Muir Woods. Moss and ferns add much to the beauty of a redwood forest. 

The news just isn’t very happy today. Our long, slow descent into chaos and barbarity shows no signs of slowing, but rather seems to be speeding up, egged on by eager partisans who think they are finally living out their long-cultivated adolescent revenge fantasies. They are unable or unwilling to imagine the part where the Committee of Public Safety guillotines their own (starting with those most purely and fanatically devoted to the Cause), where a Ukrainian farmer with some chickens, a cow and 2 acres of beets is declared, along with 20 million of his neighbors, to be the evil enemy of the state whose heads (and whose wives’ and children’s heads) History demands, or the Cambodian who must die for the crime of having learned to read.

Those most smugly pleased with the way things are going cannot imagine that they, themselves, will eventually cease to be useful. They believe they ARE the Cause! It is strictly unimaginable to them that they are being used, and being valued solely by their usefulness. History is a buzz-kill easily ignored.

Our President gets his picture taken in front of a 5-story high image of Che, unable to appreciate how that might look to the thousands who still live who lost mother and father, sister and brother, to Che’s homicidal psychopathology. But, damn, doesn’t hs make for a good t-shirt, with those craggy good looks and that 1,000 mile stare?

We headed out, in the rain, to visit Muir Woods. Seemed like the sane thing to do at the time. It’s only an hour’s drive away.

We’d never been to the woods in the rain – native Californian training is that, in the remote event that it rains, do something indoors. Like, for example, watching it rain. We have a guest from Germany with us, and such delicateness struck him as – odd.

So we went. It was beautiful. On the Beaten Path

 

Science! Friday

A. Nyuk. Wired (which is ‘weird’ if you type fast and badly, or are making a subtle psych joke, or are Livin’ the Vida Freud)  has published an article on the replication kerfuffle among psychologists that I have commented on here and here. The writer for Wired recaps the back and forth between Team Everything Is Just FINE, Sit Down and Shut Up and Team Shouldn’t We Be Able To, Like, Reproduce Your Results? and comments:

Are you not entertained? Wait—you’re not? It’s true that the back-and-forth doesn’t really matter. What this is really about is how psychology sees itself—and how that vision could affect what scientists think of of the Reproducibility Project, positive or negative. “There is a community of researchers who think that there is just no problem whatsoever and a community of researchers who believe that the field is seriously in crisis,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at UC Santa Barbara. “There is some antagonism between those two communities, and both sides each have a perspective that may color the way they’re seeing things.”

Nosek feels it, too. “You think it’s slightly antagonistic?” he says.

At its heart, both sides were driven to write these papers because they frickin’ love psychology. “What I want to observe is high reproducibility,” says Nosek. “That is better for us, the findings, and the field.” But that love is also what drove him to found the Center for Open Science—he saw things going wrong in his field and wanted to help fix them. Noble, but it may have driven the design and interpretation of the 100 replications in a way that would underestimate replication rates.

Gilbert and his coauthors, on the other hand, love psychology the other way. They’re reacting not to a paper in Science per se, but to a public that seems willing to condemn their profession. “Everybody takes this article to say that thousands, millions of people in this field of science are doing bad work,” says Gilbert. In 2014, he called replicators “shameless bullies” in an attempt to protect a researcher whose work was attacked after a replication attempt didn’t confirm her results.

It’s all a family spat! They love Mommy and Daddy! To use an applied psych metaphor, Team EIJFSDASU is the kid taking the responsible person role in the abusive household, telling the younger siblings that if Mommy says she slipped on the stairs and bruised herself, THAT’S WHAT HAPPENED! Because they know from experience if you say anything else, things will just get worse! While Team SWBATLRYR, the sibling not yet fully inculcated, is all like ‘that’s not what happened! I saw Daddy…’ ‘SHUT UP!’ screams Team EIJFSDASU. And round and round it goes, until, almost always, the younger sibling realizes that he is unwilling to pay the price for truth, and becomes a member of the Tribe of the Lie. Having a mommy and daddy (or, respect, a job and grant money, as the case may be) is just more important than some abstraction like reality.

As in all crazy relationships, those who have managed to function at all in them are really, really good at being crazy. They have a million very well rehearsed excuses and stories to explain why what is obvious isn’t so. They’re so good at these stories that they sort of believe them themselves and can tell them so convincingly that anyone only slightly invested will almost always find them convincing. If you think an outsider might simply point out the truth by appeal to the obvious facts, and that, being grown ups, the people involved will change their views to, you know, incorporate obvious truths, you have been living under a rock. (1)

Anyway, read the linked articles if this interests you. Keep in mind that once we allowed academia to call ‘sciences’ on fields whose claims are not subject to the rigorous processes that the name ‘science’ implies (replication being foremost among these), the door was opened to all sorts of ‘studies’ that have no link to reality whatsoever – pure theory, as it were, that acts not so much as an explanation of what we see but rather as a filter to what we are allowed to see: Women’s Studies, Race-based studies, all Marxist ‘science’. And you and I, if we pay taxes, are funding this.

“(A) public that seems willing to condemn their profession” – not just a good idea. More is at stake here than whether some fraud or other gets to keep their tenured position. Can the modern university be saved? Should it be? (2)

  1. Me? My rock was forcibly overturned years ago. Also, about 25+ years back I read a boatload of psych stuff, starting with Freud and Jung (well, with Plato and Aristotle, really) and working my way forward to Alice Miller and Cognitive Therapy, after which I grew sated and have hardly looked at any since. Plus, I have friends and family. As Joe Sobran used to say: if you think somebody is normal, you just don’t know him very well.
  2. In a related context, Fred of Fred on Everything says: “Schools of engineering and science will mostly resist enstupidation–the definite integral will prove an absolute barrier to affirmative action…” One can only hope.

B. In How to grow vegetables in the Sahara, an encouraging article on how applied technology can be used to grow food in inhospitable places, two rather nice points that are often missed get made in passing. I choose to see these points, especially the second, as the author’s attempts to get the truth out in an often antagonistic medium. Or they could be cries for help, or just accidents.

#1: “Tunisia was always interesting for its physical conditions,” says Hauge. “Political developments made it increasingly interesting for us.” What is often missed, studiously missed, it seems, is that basic infrastructure problems in the 21st century are almost always, at heart, political problems. This brings to mind a story Feynman (I think) told about being with a group of scientists on some 3rd world problem-solving junket. He noticed some slum-dwelling peasants who, every day, went down a hill to fetch water, only to have to carry it back up the hill – inefficient and exhausting. The solution was not a problem of science or technology – it was running a pipe up to the top of the hill and putting in a faucet.

It was a problem of politics. In a calm consistent political environment, it would not be long before somebody, maybe even the peasants themselves, ran the pipe. But political chaos makes solving even simple problems hard or impossible. Thus, for the last century, I have not myself read or heard of a famine that was not the result of political chaos. In other words, I have not heard of a politically stable country where a drought or blight of some kind wiped out their crops and caused starvation. What is instead the case is that wars and violence have prevented people from being able to consistently tend farms or, in a pinch, import food – that has caused famines.

So Tunisia calms the hell down – and now a bunch of Norwegians can go down and address their relative lack of fresh vegetables. Cool. We only need to keep in mind that this only works in places where revolutionaries or gangs or insurgents or whatever you want to call them are not going to burn your greenhouses and desalinization plants down.

#2: “The Sahara Desert was once a lush landscape full of exotic plants and wildlife, before a dramatic era of climate change created the arid plains of today.”

Now, really. If you’re halfway informed, you will know that the Sahara was a lush landscape thousands of years ago. The linked article, from 2006, gives the following timeline:

  • 22,000 to 10,500 years ago: The Sahara was devoid of any human occupation outside the Nile Valley and extended 250 miles further south than it does today.
  • 10,500 to 9,000 years ago: Monsoon rains begin sweeping into the Sahara, transforming the region into a habitable area swiftly settled by Nile Valley dwellers.
  • 9,000 to 7,300 years ago: Continued rains, vegetation growth, and animal migrations lead to well established human settlements, including the introduction of domesticated livestock such as sheep and goats.
  • 7,300 to 5,500 years ago: Retreating monsoonal rains initiate desiccation in the Egyptian Sahara, prompting humans to move to remaining habitable niches in Sudanese Sahara. The end of the rains and return of desert conditions throughout the Sahara after 5,500 coincides with population return to the Nile Valley and the beginning of pharaonic society.

Is our intrepid author slipping in a little dig at the Chicken Littles of climate change by pointing out that, yes, climate changes – always has? Or is he being a tool by suggesting to the ignorant that, somehow, CO2 emissions have made the lush landscape of the Sahara into a desert? Unfortunately, there is no explanation of the timescale in the essay itself – you have to follow the link. But would CNN allow such an explanation, an explanation that just barely might cause someone to notice the climate has been changing without any human input for thousands of years and wondering if it might still be doing so? Thus stepping off the bandwagon? I don’t know.

Well, upon further thought – nah. Just fluff seems most likely. Even ill intent seems more likely than subtle cries for truth. But hope springs eternal.

Family and State

In my ongoing efforts to remain unread in as many venues as possible(1), I hereby post a comment I made on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, where, in a typically good post worth your read, she discusses the difficulties of growing up if others – the state, or even the extended family – are always there to make sure you don’t hit bottom.

While I agree with much of what she’s saying, I tend to focus on another aspect: the family as the foundation of the state and a bulwark against its excesses:

I’ve told our kids (1 left at home, 2 in college, one graduate) that they will always have a home, but I’m not interested in subsidizing a wasted life. It’s still early, but, so far, I’m more afraid they’ll never come back than that they’ll never leave! Our college kids have spent a total of two summers between the 3 of them with us, and, even then, they found their own jobs and worked. Otherwise, they haven’t even come back for the summer, but have pursued some adventure or other.

Part of it is that we never ran them through the school mill, where ‘success’ is measured out in approval doled out for pleasing authority figures. Instead, they tend to see success in setting and achieving their own goals. (this has the odd side-effect of them sometimes being dissatisfied with getting an ‘A’ if they don’t feel they did good enough in the class.) I guess I’m saying that, so far, my experience is that merely having that family net does not make one soft.

That’s all an aside, really – my main comment is that extended family is a good thing, one that not only establishes that support mechanism which you’re writing about, but also stands as the only practical opposition to the omnicompetent state. That’s why Marx and Gramsci wanted so badly to destroy it, and why it seems to be always in the cross-hairs of progressives everywhere: schools are presumed to raise our kids for us, Social Security is presumed to care for our elderly for us, the rights of the individual trump the rights of the family in divorce, custody and visitation decisions so much so that (right here, I imagine) it strikes people as odd to even imagine a family having rights, and outrageous to imagine that those family rights might need to be placed in the scales and weighed against what the omnicompetent individual wants.

That ancient understanding is that, if a family has duties, it must also have rights, has mostly been driven off the stage. Sarah, in your stories I’ve read (mostly on this blog – don’t know if that’s a representative sample or not), it is common for the hero to become a loner or at least be stripped of his group membership, then find purpose and fulfillment by becoming part of another, better, group – a family, even. Makes for good drama, and resonates with what I think we’d all like to have. I’m suggesting that those families, bound by love and Ideals, are good and essential even before the bullets start flying. Heck, maybe if we focused enough on building and sustaining them, the bullets might not even need to fly…

To go even further: the Founding Fathers (some of them, anyway) were very interested in restricting the franchise to men who had property. While their interest in such restrictions were firmly based in their completely justified horror at the tyranny of the majority and stopping that whole ‘vote yourself a free lunch’ thing that demagogues in all ages always eventually get around to,  it seems to me to be more essentially the dim reflection of the old understanding of family rights and duties. A man’s right to property was not traditionally seen as absolute – a man had a right to own and quietly enjoy those things he needed in order to fulfill his duties. Therefore, a man with a family has the duty to care for it, and therefore a right to acquire and keep stuff – a home, an income, tools, comforts that support family life.

A married woman participates in these duties of her husband, and therefore participates in these rights. In practice, a husband would be unwise to the point of insanity to consider his wife’s belongings to be his own, but in theory, if push came to shove, and a decision needed to be made about ALL their possessions, he would have the *duty* to make it.

To look at this the other way around: a man or woman who joined a religious order and took a vow of poverty surrenders all rights to own property. The simple monk or nun has no duties that require ownership. Yet the clothes on their backs and other such personal items are theirs in all practical senses. If the monastery were to up and move, say, the abbot or abbess might decide that they should leave some belongings behind, thus, in an extreme case, exercising the rights of ownership that fall to the office of abbot with the duty to manage stuff for the good of all and each.

In the middle ages, when this understanding of rights springing from duties was prevalent, a widow might inherit all the belongings of her late husband – but she might not. It might be that another man had by law or custom the duty to care for her and her family, in which case he would become owner of the property.

If you find this outrageous, seeing everywhere opportunities for abuse, I can only agree that this system could be and was abused. My only counter argument is that the system we have today is also abused constantly, and in more frivolous ways, as when in an acrimonious divorce, the parties try to stick it to each other over every last pot and pan, the rights of any children involved being irrelevant or denied outright.

Be that as it may, it remains true, as noted above, that progressives, whether consciously and purposely or not, tend strongly to favor measures that undermine the family, especially the extended family, insofar as families provide a fixed point from which to challenge the power of the state.

In a similar way, we might see restricting the vote to men who own property as outrageous. We can all think of many exceptions that defeat the purpose of such restrictions: the indolent rich, the industrious poor. And, of course, women(2).

So, now, women and men all may vote, regardless of any duties or property they may or may not hold. And perhaps this is, overall, a good thing. My point here, as elsewhere on this blog, it simply to point out that there is always a trade off, a cost to all social changes. Instead of having a representative of the family sally forth into the larger political world as the representative  of the family and its interests and cast his vote accordingly, we now have implicitly declared that our duties and rights as citizens are greater than any duties and rights we may have as part of a family. In fact, we recognize fewer such family duties and rights with each passing day.

That a vote might cause dissention within a family is considered no cost at all; that a vote might put members of a family at cross purposes is almost a joke. Thus, both the family and voting are trivialized. Is this really better?

 

  1. To all 6 of my regular readers – Just kidding! Love you all!
  2. Mike Flynn, in his epic Eifelheim, set largely in 14th century Germany, mentions in passing a couple cases where the duties of men fell to women – who then had rights they exercised shoulder to shoulder with the men. Given mortality rates and life expectancies – even without the occasional Black Death – a society would have to have orderly ways for property to be inherited and managed. It is greatly to the honor of those medieval villagers that they had such humane ways of handling transitions brought about by the death of a property owner. Unlike, say, a society in which not just the stuff they owned, but the villagers themselves would be considered the property of the king.

Sustermans the Magnificent

Even more random than usual…

For no reason, woke up this morning with the thought that, when those Renaissance Florentines added ‘the Magnificent’ to Lorenzo de Medici‘s name, maybe they were making fun of him. Italians are like that. We’re approaching 30 years of marriage, my wife and I, to each other, even, which means we are also approaching 30 years since we went to Florence together. I guess that’s why all these old dead Italians are on my mind.

Cosimo de Medici  (27 September 1389 – 1 August 1464) was a tough old bird, but suffered a fate common to high-achieving fathers everywhere: his son Piero (1416 – 2 December 1469) wasn’t quite up to managing what he left him. (When you are distinguished from other Piero de Medicis by the suffix ‘the Gouty’ you kinda know you’ve not exactly distinguished yourself. On a more positive note, his grandson was Piero the Unfortunate, so I suppose Piero the Gouty at least avoided being the most pathetic Piero de Medici.)

Cosimo, like the good mafia don he was, believed in laying low. No ostentatious buildings (1) or monuments – just be content with knowing you own and run things. Like Whitey Bulger living like a monk (2) in Boston and heading down to the Caribbean to spend his money and party, Cosimo believed it wise to not flaunt his wealth in the faces of the people who could have him banished, put a contract out on him or otherwise make life unpleasant.(3)  Better to patronize the arts and get a reputation for culture and refinement. His son Piero the Gouty more or less followed suit.

This brings us to Piero’s son Lorenzo (1 January 1449 – 9 April 1492). One does not pick up the sobriquet ‘the Magnificent’ by laying low. Larry commissioned (4) a few less than subtle works to the glory of God and State via the more essential glory of Larry and his family. ‘Understated’ would not be an adjective leaping to mind when viewing the Medici’s parish church, San Lorenzo, for example.

The Omphalos of Wikipedia says: “In 1471, Lorenzo calculated that since 1434, his family had spent some 663,000 florins (about US$460 million today) on charity, buildings and taxes. He wrote,

“I do not regret this for though many would consider it better to have a part of that sum in their purse, I consider it to have been a great honour to our state, and I think the money was well-expended and I am well-pleased.”

Lorenzo represents a high point, taste-wise, in Medici art patronage. When you have Botticelli and Michelangelo working for you, it’s a bit hard to go too far wrong. Later Medicis fared not quite so well.

This brings us back around to the title of this post. Justus Sustermans (28 September 1597 – 23 April 1681) is a perfectly good artist, wonderful even, who painted for  Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany for much of his career. He had the reputation of being the finest portrait painter in Italy. Check it out.

Here’s the problem: if you visit Florence, you will no doubt spend a few days checking out the Ghiberti Doors, Michaelangelo’s David, the Giottos and Botticellis in the Uffizi, the Fra Angelicos in San Marco, and on and on. Then, maybe, you’ll cross the Ponte Vecchio and drop in on the Pitti Palace. Which is positively packed with Sustermans.

Sustermans, I’m told by the Wikipedia article, grace the walls of many fine museums around the world. They really are fine art, by a really good artist. But if you’ve just been looking at the David, or Primavera (much better in person than any picture), and a hundred more timeless masterpieces, and your brain is full and feet are tired, by about the 50th Sustermans, you’re pretty much beyond making considered esthetic judgements.

I, being somewhat irreverent, and drunk with the joy of walking around Florence with my new bride, took to turning to her as we entered a new gallery in the Pitti Palace (there are many) and spotted one of the inevitable Sustermans and saying, deadpan, “That is the finest Sustermans I have ever seen.”

Maybe you had to be there.

  1. Well, there is this, which, while hardly your middle-class 15th century town home, comes off as elegant understatement once one gets a gander at the appalling grandeur of the Pitti Palace.
  2. Apart from the murder and mayhem – sort of a Dan Brown style monk, as it were.
  3. I love this tidbit from Wikipedia:

On Easter Sunday, 26 April 1478, in an incident called the Pazzi conspiracy, a group including members of the Pazzi family, backed by the Archbishop of Pisa and his patron Pope Sixtus IV, attacked Lorenzo and his brother and co-ruler, Giuliano, in the Cathedral of Florence. Giuliano was killed, but Lorenzo escaped with only a stab wound. The conspiracy was brutally put down by such measures as the lynching of the Archbishop of Pisa and the death of the Pazzi family members who were directly involved.

Got that? Your competitors put the hit on you. On Easter. In the Cathedral. In response, your family arranges to have the Archbishop of a neighboring city lynched and participating members of the competing family snuffed. I wonder if something along the lines of a horse’s head showed up in the Pope’s bed? This is the same pope to whom Lorenzo sent Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, and other Medici court artists to do a little light decorating in the Vatican, thus firming up the Medici-pope relationship. Somehow. It’s Italian, we are not supposed to understand, exactly. Just know Don Corleone would have approved. It’s just business, I’m sure.

Italian politics are indistinguishable from mafias for most, if not all, of Italian history.

4.  Or caused to be commissioned – his actual role in getting art paid for is evidently a matter of dispute.

Talkin’ ’bout the Weather

Here in California, we are in a drought. Not a drought drought, where, I dunno, native flora and fauna are dying, preferably on a grim but picturesque dried lake bed of cracked mud. Like this. No, what we mean by drought in California: not enough rain and snow are falling to keep our reservoirs full.

Here’s a screen grab from Weather.com, showing the radar images of precipitation earlier today in California:

California Rain

The blue stuff is snow; the green, orange and red are rain. This is sort of the classic California rain situation: Storms come in from the west, rain a bit on their way to the Sierra, then have all their moisture wrung out of them as rain and snow by a long range of 10,000′ high granite mountains. The rain and, eventually, the snow when it melts, feed a bunch of rivers that water that valley to the west of the mountains – the Central Valley. The waters are enriched with vegetable matter from all the pine forests in the Sierra, as well as minerals dissolved from the granite. This, coupled with 300+ days of sunshine and mostly mild temperatures, makes the Central Valley the most perfect place for farming on the planet. California’s largest industry is not high tech or Hollywood – it’s agriculture.

Also note that no rain gets past the Sierra from Lake Tahoe (that’s the little marker with the ‘3’) all the down to Bakersfield. Tahoe is just south of Donner Pass (1), a relatively low spot that sometimes permits rain to get through to Reno and northern Nevada. The mountains to the north of there aren’t as tall, generally, as those to the south, and so rain gets through more often in the north. The southern Sierra is dominated by Mount Whitney, at 14,505′ the highest point in the contiguous US. It’s part of a group of really tall and impressive granite peaks which cast the first of four rain shadows that keep Death Valley so dry.

In the north, near Redding, you see some rain. This is important, as Lake Shasta, the state’s biggest single reservoir, is just north of that town. The dam was built in the 30s and 40s because – you’ll be shocked to hear this – sometimes, it rains a lot in California, and sometimes it doesn’t. Floods and water shortages for agriculture take turns.

People love those dramatic pictures of Lake Shasta during ‘droughts’ – during periods where more water is drawn down for agriculture than added by rain and snow melt for a year or two. Four years of that – which is what we’ve just had – and the lake is pretty sad looking:

Lake Shasta, returned to the valley it was before the US Bureau of Reclamation made it into a lake – at least, in those years when there’s plenty of rain.

There’s nothing wrong, really. The lake fills up when it’s wet and gets empty when it’s not.  That’s kind of the point – if rainfall were orderly and predictable, we wouldn’t need huge reservoirs to moderate it. This year, it is filling rapidly and might actually be full by the end of the month.

Speaking of which, you will also notice in the screen grab that there’s a ton of rain falling in LA. LA is more or less boxed in by mountains on three sides – thus, the LA basin. The highest set are the three ranges to the north. When rain comes from the south, as it is now via the ‘Atmospheric River‘  known as the ‘Pineapple Express‘ LA can get seriously drenched as those mountains act to wring the precipitation out. The three rivers in LA – the San Gabriel, San Fernando and Los Angeles – are now mainly open concrete storm drains. Weird as it may seem, flooding was seen as the big problem back in the 1920s, so the authorities made darn sure that wouldn’t happen if they could help it. It’s interesting to think of LA as three big river valleys, not a thousand square miles of pavement.

Meanwhile, south of Bakersfield, the Sierra end and the rain has a chance to get east. That area  east and south of the mountains is the Mojave Desert, so you can see that it doesn’t happen very often. The land around Lancaster and Barstow is still fairly high, like 4,000’ or more, so not a lot of precipitation gets through most years. The exception, which happened this year, is a southern storm heading north that skirts the mountains north of LA and then hits the backside of a series of three ranges to the east of the Sierra and west of Death Valley – then, you can get a few inches of rain in the desert.

As you can see, the chief characteristic of California weather is how much it can vary from place to place based on geography and the way the wind is blowing. All those mountains and valleys make for lots of local variations. Here in the Bay Area, the weather on the east side of the Berkeley hills is often dramatically different from that on the west side. The hills don’t stop much of the rain, but the tend to stop 100% of the fog. It is both much warmer and much colder in Concord than it is 20 miles away in San Francisco and its suburbs.

We’ll wrap this digression up with a brief look at local rainfall. Here is a map of my neighborhood showing rain gages:

Rain Gage Map

The north and far west of Contra Costa County are on the Bay. (2)  All but the flats in the far east are hills and valleys, with one mountin – Mt. Diablo – close to the center. The rain gage labeled ‘DBL 22’ sits atop Mt. Diablo.

The crazy part, even if predictable, is how much the average annual rainfall varies from gage to gage. Richmond City Hall, on the Bay to the far left, gets 21.8″ on average. Bethel Island Fire Station, maybe 20 miles away, gets an average of 11″. Both these gages are around sea level and on the Bay. The top of Mt. Diablo gets 27.5″; St. Mary’s College, nestled in a little valley a few miles away, 28.15″, while the Concord Pavilion in the hills a few miles northeast gets 17″.

It gets worse when we look at the actual data for a given year: so far this year, for the 28 gages on the map, 25% have gotten 100% or more of their season average precipitation; another 36% have gotten between 90% and 100%. Yet 25% have gotten 75% or less of their season average, one even has a mere 60% – ‘drought’ level! And the locations seem hardly to matter – there’s no readily discernable pattern to which gages have gotten their annual fill and which have not. Valleys, hills, peaks; high and low averages, they each have some that are at 100% or better, and some that are way low.

What’s going on here? Two things, it seems to me: first, the sample size is small: most of these gages have only been in place less than 40 years. Those averages may not represent much of anything. After a 1,000 years, then you might have something you would be willing to hang your hat on. Maybe. The other factor is the weird geography and very varied ways storms blow in. We have hills, valleys, a mountain, some flats; storms that come east to west, northwest to southeast, and southwest to northeast, some blasting in on strong winds and some drifting in with hardly a breeze. Different storms find those valleys and hit those hills and mountain in different ways, filling some gages while mostly missing others.

At least we’re getting a ton of rain now. The rainy season is drawing to a close – we tend to get little rain after March – but the storms we’re having now and over the next few days should bring annual rain and snow totals close to average, whatever that may mean.

  1. What do they serve with drinks at a cannibal restaurant? Donner Party Mix! I slay me.
  2. The cartographer’s convention is to call only the southern part of the estuary San Francisco Bay, while calling the northern part San Pablo Bay, the part east of there Suisun Bay, and anything east of that the Sacramento River Delta. Pishaw – it’s all one big estuary with naught but whim to divvy it up. I herein call it ‘the Bay’.