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How urban infrastructure falls apart: a medieval cautionary climate tale

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The downfall of the medieval city of Angkor contains lessons about the vulnerability of modern cities to extreme weather events – the kind that are likely to increase in frequency and intensity with climate change. An analysis published last week in Science Advances connects the dots between past and present.

Angkor, in present-day Cambodia, was the largest city in the pre-industrial world, covering more than 1,000 square kilometers at its peak. The new study suggests that flood damage to the city’s complex water distribution system touched off a cascading series of failures that likely played a role in Angkor’s decline and near-abandonment during the 15th century.

Of course, climate change has played a role in the abandonment of other cities and even the fall of civilizations. But this is the first study to show specifically how urban infrastructure is involved in such a collapse. That’s especially relevant today since the majority of the world’s population lives in cities.

In the study, researchers developed a computer model based on archaeological maps of Angkor’s water distribution network in the mid-14th century. This complex system of canals, reservoirs, dikes, and moats was developed over the course of more than 500 years. It provided flood control in Angkor’s urban core and irrigation water for agriculture in the outlying areas of the sprawling, low-density city.

In the late 14th century, the climate of Southeast Asia abruptly became much rainier than it had been before. Scientists have suspected for a while that changing climate and rainfall patterns had something to do with Angkor’s decline. The new study provides a quantitative analysis of how things went wrong.

The researchers used their computer model, which is composed of 1,013 canals and other structures that direct the flow of water and 617 connections between them, to compute how flooding could damage different parts of the water network.

They found that water flows above a certain threshold will cause erosion in some canals. Erosion begets erosion because the now-wider canals take on a greater proportion of the water from upstream. In turn, flow is reduced in adjacent parts of the network, producing sedimentation in the low-flow channels.

“Very large floods will therefore quickly result in systemic instability in the water distribution network,” the researchers write. The bigger the flood, the greater the likelihood and extent of these cascading failures.

The model predicts that the upstream, northern and western parts of Angkor’s water network will be more prone to damage than the central urban core and southeastern region. This fits pretty well with the archaeological data known so far.

Angkor’s history illustrates the importance of building resilience into modern cities’ infrastructure, the researchers say. And it suggests there’s a danger in building only for past climates, without looking ahead to potential future risks. Angkor’s water network and agricultural practices were likely adapted to periods of prolonged drought that occurred during the 13th and 14th centuries. So when the climate regime shifted, the city’s infrastructure was vulnerable.

“The basic pathology of Angkor’s collapse is analogous to the challenges faced by networked urban infrastructures in the modern world,” the researchers write. “This was not an exotic catastrophe with no modern analog.”

Source: Penny D. et al. “The demise of Angkor: Systemic vulnerability of urban infrastructure to climatic variations. Science Advances. 2018.

Image: Welcome to NY by jjpeabody



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sarcozona
21 hours ago
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These Days

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These days nearly all I think about are meta-rationality, the mysterious development of behavioral modernity and Humean skepticism.

Essentially, I hate the so-called rationalism community and rationality as an ideology. Nota bene: this is not the same thing as hating rationality. Rationality is an extremely useful tool, just not if it’s misapplied. This rationalism community that I so disdain has essentially swallowed (or become) STEM culture. This was not necessary and the humanities side of the aisle was certainly not blameless in this but alas we allowed rationality to consume all other culture, even in areas in which it had no natural dominion.

I don’t wish to revert to pre-rational ways of thinking as this would be a huge mistake, but among the STEM types I’d like them to be able to recognize that their systems and “truths” are almost always just limited models that apply in certain situations and not in others, and that don’t fully delineate reality and especially what one ought to do. And that information doesn’t want anything — only humans can want.

In my early years, I was a strict logical positivist. An empiricist. If you could not prove it, why discuss it?

Then I started realizing (alas on my own, with no guideposts) that strict rationality concealed more than it revealed — I began pondering things that I’d only read in detail about years later in David Hume’s and Nancy Cartwright’s work.

There is no approved path from strict formal rationalism to a more nuanced understanding of the universe because no one wants you to tread that way. It’s got “Path Closed” and “No Entry: Dangerous Monsters” and other signs, and chains all across it. And that’s because there are in fact dangerous monsters down that path! Once you start realizing the vast seas of uncomputability, that no system can be self-consistent, that physics cannot handle composite cases, that causality is not something we can discuss meaningfully or self-consistently on several different axes, and that you simply cannot prove many things that are obviously true (thus the extreme limitations of formal methods) — well, much of the world becomes shaky beneath one’s feet and it’s easy to sink into the mire.

So, once you arrive here, you are flailing about, with nowhere to go. You are beyond postmodernism, beyond rationality, completely off the charts.

I don’t think I am more enlightened than others, and I don’t even like using the word “enlightened” as it implies mysticism in which I am completely uninterested. But I do know there sure aren’t many people on this path and I wish there were more of them.

Some of the benefits is that it’s much harder to get hoodwinked by experts while still recognizing the usefulness of expertise. You are also nearly immune to propaganda. You can think about and consider things — many things, all at once — without becoming a true believer. And many more.

The drawbacks are that reality begins to look rather porous and provisional and you lose all certitude. That’s not a tradeoff everyone wants to make; it is in fact cognitively dangerous because as mentioned no one wants you to walk down that path. Down this way, where the monsters slumber and sometimes awaken, you become your own person with your own thoughts that do not and cannot belong to anyone else. This is not encouraged in this or any society.

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sarcozona
21 hours ago
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An Undulating Brick Facade Imitates the Free-Flowing Movement of Draped Fabric

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German architecture firm Behet Bondzio Lin Architekten recently constructed a new headquarters for the Association of the Northwest German Textile and Garment Industry in Münster, Germany. The firm wanted the building to allude to the association’s work with fabric, and designed a facade that would imitate its folds through a gradient of bricks oriented at different angles.

The decision to recreate the appearance of a soft textile from a firm material was inspired by the alabaster folds of Max Klinger's statue of Beethoven located at the Leipzig Art Museum. The carved composer sits shirtless on an armchair with what appears to be a piece of fabric draped over his knee. The fluid nature of the sculpture’s scarf is believable, despite its composition of solid stone. A similar experience is shared by the new headquarters, however created from bricks rather than rock. You can see more of the Behet Bondzio Lin’s designs on their website. (via Jeroen Apers)

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sarcozona
21 hours ago
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I am not sure why, but I find this hideous
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SE ME

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I am thinking about buying a spare iPhone SE since that appears it’ll be the last usable phone ever made. I am worried about mine breaking and not having a phone I am able to use. You know, a real phone with headphone jack and not the size of Montana.

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sarcozona
22 hours ago
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My partner and I both did this. No regrets.
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What May’s Brexit Deal Tells Us About The EU and Britain’s Future

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So, May has a Brexit deal. It’s a terrible deal, which makes the UK subject to many EU laws, and which doesn’t allow Britain to withdraw from the deal if the EU doesn’t want it to.

This has caused ministerial resignations, and Corbyn has come out against it.

But the interesting part is what the EU and May have negotiated. This clause, for example:

Corbyn’s policies include straight up re-nationalization of the railways, regulation of housing prices and the government outright building vast numbers of flats, among many other similar policies.

In other words, Corbyn’s policies interfere with liberal market rules. They are, actually, forbidden by the EU, but on occasion exceptions are made.

Now, retaining privileged access to the EU market was going to require some rule taking, but May has chosen to take more rules that are “no socialism” and less rules that are “treat your people decently.”

What May has done is negotiate a deal which ties Corbyn’s hands: he can’t do his policies if he becomes Prime Minister, and he can’t leave the deal. (Well, in theory, and perhaps in practice.)

Of course, Britain can still leave the deal: parliament is supreme, and one parliament cannot tie the hands of another parliament. Nonetheless, doing so would be damaging to Britain’s relationship with the EU, to put it mildly.

These sorts of efforts to tie future government’s hands, so that they can’t not do neoliberal policies are common. The now-dead Canadian Chinese trade deal had a clause which required a 20 year withdrawal notice, for example. The Canadian-EU free trade deal forbids the Canadian government from many of these sorts of policies as well.

This is the great problem with the neoliberal world order: it is set up to force countries into a specific sort of economy, and to punish them if they resist or refuse. That would be somewhat ok, but only somewhat, if neoliberal economics worked, but they don’t.

What they do, instead, is impoverish large minorities, even pluralities, in countries which adopt them. Those pluralities then become demagogue bait (hello Trump.)

Meanwhile Macron has proposed an EU military, and Germany’s Merkel has said she supports the idea.

EU elites are absolutely convinced their way is best, and that anyone who is against it is wrong. They are not primarily concerned with democracy (the EU is run primarily by un-elected bureaucrats), and do not consider democratic legitimacy as primary. If people vote for the “wrong” thing, EU elites feel they have the right to over-ride that. They have overseen what amount to coups in both Greece and Italy in the past 10 years.

The funny thing is that orthodox neoliberal economic theory admits there will be losers to neoliberal policies and states that they must be compensated. The problem is that has never been done, and indeed, with accelerating austerity, the opposite has been done: at the same time as a plurality is impoverished, the social supports have been kicked out from under them.

Macron has been particularly pointed in this: gutting labor rights in the name of labor market flexibility.

Neoliberalism, in other words, creates the conditions of its own failure. It is failing around the world: in America (Trump does not believe in the mulilateral neoliberal order), in Europe, and so on.

Even in countries that “support” the EU, there are substantial minorities, pushing into plurality status, which don’t support it.

So Europe needs an army. Because Eurocrats know best, and since neoliberalism isn’t working for enough people that things like Brexit happen; that Italy is ignoring rules, that the East is boiling over with right wing xenophobia, well, force is going to be needed. A European military, with French nukes, is the core of a great power military. And soon countries won’t be able to leave.

That, at any rate, is where things are headed. We’ll see if the EU cracks up first.

In the meantime, May’s Brexit deal really is worse than no deal, and in should in no way be passed. In fact, if I were Corbyn, and it was passed, if I became PM I’d get rid of it. Because it either goes or he breaks substantially all of his most important electoral promises.

The EU is loathsome. I won’t say it’s done no good, but it’s now doing more harm than good (indeed it has been for at least a decade.) As with the US, since it is misusing its power, it needs to lose it. That process will be ugly, since a lot of those who are rising to challenge it are right wing assholes (because the left has abandoned sovereignty).

But you can’t fail pluralities of your population and stay stable without being a police state and holding yourself together with brutal force.

Those are the EU’s two most likely futures: brutal police state, or crackup.

Pity, but that’s what EUcrats, with their insistence on neoliberal rules and hatred of democracy have made damn near inevitable.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.

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sarcozona
22 hours ago
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The Man Who Wrote The Mediocre Novel

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What does it mean when the “perfect novel” is misogynistic, petty, and utterly unremarkable? Just that it’s by a white man.

 

As I browsed the University of Texas Press’s fall catalogue, a title jumped out at me: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel (October 15). When I read the blurb, I became incensed. It was a biography of John Williams, the author of Stoner, the unlikeliest bestseller of the 2000s. Stoner was originally published in 1965 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2006, and then re-reissued in 2015 in a lavish hardback edition. It was reviewed and lauded widely. In the New York Times Book Review, Morris Dickstein called it “a perfect novel.”

Stoner is not a perfect novel. It’s not even a particularly well-written novel. You’ve probably read a hundred books like it. It is a methodical, hagiographic piece of fiction about a college professor, a man who plods passively through his life and takes joy only in literature.

William Stoner is born on a farm. He goes to college, becomes a professor at that college, takes a wife, has a child, undergoes professional difficulties, and dies. This is a terrific way to write a novel—to do a character study of a small, mediocre life. But Williams’s mediocrity blurs with Stoner’s until they both lose the reader’s interest. And one or both of them has a frightening carelessness toward women. Stoner repeatedly indulges in marital rape, saying that when his wife shifts against him in her sleep, “he moved upon her.” His wife, in response, “turn[s] her head sideways in a familiar gesture and bur[ies] it in her pillow, enduring violation,” so there is no mistaking these encounters as consensual. Dickstein’s review didn’t mention that. But then, Stoner is aimed toward Dickstein, and not toward me.  

There’s a reason a book like Stoner was re-issued, and a biography like The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel was published.  The most elevated cultural conversations favor writing that is traditionally male, subjectively male, overtly male. This may be occurring almost involuntarily on the part of the editors and critics. In Stoner, a male critic might not notice that Stoner’s wife is relegated to the stereotypes of frigid bitch, and later, crazy bitch. A critic without a disability might not notice that the central villains of the book are both disabled, and that the motives for their villainy are otherwise unexplained. A white critic might not notice that there are no educated people of color in the book at all. He might perceive only that Williams’s quiet, scholarly hero does his duty and loves his literature, despite the schemers who endeavor to ruin him—never noticing the common thread among those schemers.

So, of course Stoner is not a perfect novel. There’s no such thing, but if there were, it definitely wouldn’t sympathize with marital rape or demonize characters who are not cisgendered, fully abled white men. To state the obvious, no novel can be all-inclusive. Committee art is rarely of good quality. But a novel that actively shuts out readers because of their gender or skin color? The time for celebrating a novel like that, for glorifying it to the point of biographizing its author, should be long over.


The most elevated cultural conversations favor writing that is traditionally male, subjectively male, overtly male.
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Yet it still happens. Charles J. Shields, who has also written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, has done a valorous job with Williams in The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel. But he cannot disguise what’s at the heart of Stoner and what seems to have been at the heart of its author: misogyny, and mediocrity. A recollection of Williams: “He was one of those who felt…that the world is closing in on them, with all these ‘women and minorities’…[taking] the place that they were raised to think is rightfully theirs.”

As a scholar, Williams’s work was backward-looking (despite writing in the fertile 1960s, he had no interest in poetry beyond the time of William Carlos Williams), derivative, and inadequate; a rejecting editor wrote to Williams, “You are overstepping your evidence by about ten thousand miles.” In 1963 Williams caused a minor scandal by plagiarizing Yvor Winters. Shields treats it as delicately as possible. “Williams’ students did know of their professor’s proclivity for borrowing…He had taken shortcuts since the beginning of his teaching career…piggybacking on Alan Swallow’s Wyatt dissertation for his own…compiling a poetry anthology incorporating Winters’ scholarship.”

In the critical segment of his writer’s life, Williams is so unimaginative that he must plagiarize. Meanwhile, as a poet and fiction author, he struggles to find an agent, to find publication, to find a job, to find funding. He often expresses frustration that he can’t seem to get ahead as a writer. Shields tiptoes around it, but the fact is, Williams’s books just aren’t that good. On his first novel, a rejection letter reads, “To us it seems a shame that a writer of Mr. William’s [sic] obvious capabilities and potentialities should have spent so much time delineating a character who is basically not worth it.” Dutton’s feedback: “Unfortunately, we think that…this manuscript is just too long and too pretentious.”

In sum, Stoner is a minor novel by a minor writer. I don’t begrudge its wide readership (people can enjoy whatever they want); I begrudge its elevation, when it is so plainly and seriously flawed, to the point that a single review by a male critic has titled Williams’s biography. The preposterous, rapturous praise, leveled unequally toward mediocre men like Williams, is the problem.

A scan of the NYRB Classics list shows that male names outstrip female names; the same editors who chose to put two editions of Stoner into print within ten years choose mostly men from the annals of out-of-print literature to reissue and promote. Yet the poet Ai, who won a National Book Award, a Guggenheim, and an NEA grant, requires a Kickstarter to come back into print. The Second Shelf, a quarterly publication and online bookstore devoted to out-of-print women’s writing, also needed a Kickstarter to fill the gap NYRB Classics perpetuates. Passing, by Nella Larsen, is obscure (ranked at 10,000 in Amazon sales at this writing), while Invisible Man flourishes (ranked at 1,000).

Twice as many male authors get translated as women; only two houses that commonly publish translated books published more women authors than men in 2017. And just one publisher, AmazonCrossing (!), accounts for 20% of the women published in translation. VIDA continues to shout across the gender gap in publishing for short stories, essays, and particularly criticism—check out the stats for the London Review of Books and, surprise!, the NYRB. As those statistics demonstrate, women writers are reviewed less, and women critics are offered fewer opportunities to review.


The preposterous, rapturous praise, leveled unequally toward mediocre men like Williams, is the problem.
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Stoner is perfect in one respect: as an example of the heights to which a mediocre white male writer can soar when given proper cheerleading. Williams has netted a biography and lasting fame because of the men in publishing and criticism clustered around him, rooting for him. Compare him to Clarice Lispector, a contemporary, who was exponentially more prolific and acclaimed during her lifetime. It took a 2009 biography to push her work into wider acknowledgment in the US, instead of the acknowledgment engendering the biography. Or compare him to Anaïs Nin, whose work is remembered as supplemental to Henry Miller’s, whose extraordinary diary has been published by smaller and smaller presses as interest in her has waned, whose objectively fascinating life has been biographized only once. Or compare him to Grace Metalious, author of Peyton Place. She wrote bestselling, salacious melodramas that tapped the repressive sexuality of her era and is barely critically studied at all.

Stoner is also excellent as a standard against which every female writer should push. Per Shields, “Williams could build his fiction around thought warring with feeling, which creates tension, and to suggest that emotions are ineffable, beyond characters’ reach.” This sense pervades Stoner, that emotions are foreign and impossible. I think this struggle was Williams’s, that he found it difficult to enter the weak and confusing realm of emotion and nurture (his own children barely appear in Shields’s biography), the realm in which women stereotypically belong. I imagine that Williams would have found a book like My Brilliant Friend as intolerable as I find Stoner, as there is no place for him in it.

Women are half (or more) of the reading public, and yet books like Stoner are what’s thrust upon us—books in which we will never find ourselves, books whose authors were rightly buried under the weight of their own mediocrity. Books and authors whose obsolescence, whose extinction, are overdue.

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sarcozona
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