Seeing Thomas Hart Benton’s Panorama of American Life from Another Angle: The series of murals collectively known as “America Today” depict vignettes of a growing, changing nation in vibrant color. (J. McMahon • 01/15/24, NY Observer)

I asked my old friend and teacher from the Art Students League, Costa Vavagiakis, master of painting technique himself, to comment on Breton, whom he greatly admires. “Thomas Hart Benton was an intensely erudite progressive who saw the beauty in the need and function of all things… He comes from the lineage of Michelangelo, Cambiaso, Tintoretto and El Greco.”

Each of Breton’s ten panels has a theme. In City Activities With Subway, burlesque dancers on stage balance boxers in the ring along the top while strap hangers commute in anonymity, ignoring one another, while across the canvas lovers make out on a park bench. Down the center, the mass of humanity works and prays and trogs through life, all depicted in the same muscular, flowing style.

Across the room, the Deep South panel shows a world a thousand miles away from big city life. where black men fill bags with cotton and transport the white fluff to a waiting river boat with horse and carriage while white men use machines to do the same job on the opposing side. From both sides the cotton is loaded onto an old paddle steamer boat of the kind that was already part of the past when Benton painted the panel, having witnessed and sketched just such a scene on the Missouri River when he was traveling. Capturing in one panel past, present and future.

Throughout the work, which celebrates the dynamism of the Jazz Age, there are reminiscences of times past, and also of hard times to come. We see biplanes in the sky and giant steam shovels gouging out mountains but we also see ranch hands corralling stock and dead tired laborers bent over pickaxes. Money flows freely as couples dance in elegant nightclubs and sit in cinemas, but the spewing ticker tape machine boxes the looming economic crisis to come.

In a piece about “America Today” for Smithsonian magazine, Paul Theroux wrote: “None of it was fanciful or exaggerated; it is a true portrait of the Jazz Age, which was also the era of intense industrialization in the United States when cotton was king and oil was beginning to gush; of clearing land for the planting of wheat and cotton, the making of steel and mining of coal, when New York skyscrapers were rising and the city was bursting with life.”


A Sense of Where You Are: What makes a truly great basketball player? (John McPhee, January 25, 1965, The New Yorker)

Bradley is one of the few basketball players who have ever been appreciatively cheered by a disinterested away-from-home crowd while warming up. This curious event occurred last March, just before Princeton eliminated the Virginia Military Institute, the year’s Southern Conference champion, from the N.C.A.A. championships. The game was played in Philadelphia and was the last of a tripleheader. The people there were worn out, because most of them were emotionally committed to either Villanova or Temple—two local teams that had just been involved in enervating battles with Providence and Connecticut, respectively, scrambling for a chance at the rest of the country. A group of Princeton boys shooting basketballs miscellaneously in preparation for still another game hardly promised to be a high point of the evening, but Bradley, whose routine in the warmup time is a gradual crescendo of activity, is more interesting to watch before a game than most players are in play. In Philadelphia that night, what he did was, for him, anything but unusual. As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from twenty feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net with an almost mechanical rhythm of accuracy. Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket with so few exceptions that the crowd began to murmur. Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots—the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball—and ambidextrously made them all. The game had not even begun, but the presumably unimpressible Philadelphians were applauding like an audience at an opera.

Bradley has a few unorthodox shots, too. He dislikes flamboyance, and, unlike some of basketball’s greatest stars, has apparently never made a move merely to attract attention. While some players are eccentric in their shooting, his shots, with only occasional exceptions, are straightforward and unexaggerated. Nonetheless, he does make something of a spectacle of himself when he moves in rapidly parallel to the baseline, glides through the air with his back to the basket, looks for a teammate he can pass to, and, finding none, tosses the ball into the basket over one shoulder, like a pinch of salt. Only when the ball is actually dropping through the net does he look around to see what has happened, on the chance that something might have gone wrong, in which case he would have to go for the rebound. That shot has the essential characteristics of a wild accident, which is what many people stubbornly think they have witnessed until they see him do it for the third time in a row. All shots in basketball are supposed to have names—the set, the hook, the lay-up, the jump shot, and so on—and one weekend last July, while Bradley was in Princeton working on his senior thesis and putting in some time in the Princeton gymnasium to keep himself in form for the Olympics, I asked him what he called his over-the-shoulder shot. He said that he had never heard a name for it, but that he had seen Oscar Robertson, of the Cincinnati Royals, and Jerry West, of the Los Angeles Lakers, do it, and had worked it out for himself. He went on to say that it is a much simpler shot than it appears to be, and, to illustrate, he tossed a ball over his shoulder and into the basket while he was talking and looking me in the eye. I retrieved the ball and handed it back to him. “When you have played basketball for a while, you don’t need to look at the basket when you are in close like this,” he said, throwing it over his shoulder again and right through the hoop. “You develop a sense of where you are.”

Bradley is not an innovator. Actually, basketball has had only a few innovators in its history—players like Hank Luisetti, of Stanford, whose introduction in 1936 of the running one-hander did as much to open up the game for scoring as the forward pass did for football; and Joe Fulks, of the old Philadelphia Warriors, whose twisting two-handed heaves, made while he was leaping like a salmon, were the beginnings of the jump shot, which seems to be basketball’s ultimate weapon. Most basketball players appropriate fragments of other players’ styles, and thus develop their own. This is what Bradley has done, but one of the things that set him apart from nearly everyone else is that the process has been conscious rather than osmotic. His jump shot, for example, has had two principal influences. One is Jerry West, who has one of the best jumpers in basketball. At a summer basketball camp in Missouri some years ago, West told Bradley that he always gives an extra hard bounce to the last dribble before a jump shot, since this seems to catapult him to added height. Bradley has been doing that ever since. Terry Dischinger, of the Detroit Pistons, has told Bradley that he always slams his foot to the floor on the last step before a jump shot, because this stops his momentum and thus prevents drift. Drifting while aloft is the mark of a sloppy jump shot. Bradley’s graceful hook shot is a masterpiece of eclecticism. It consists of the high-lifted knee of the Los Angeles Lakers’ Darrall Imhoff, the arms of Bill Russell, of the Boston Celtics, who extends his idle hand far under his shooting arm and thus magically stabilizes the shot, and the general corporeal form of Kentucky’s Cotton Nash, a rookie this year with the Lakers. Bradley carries his analyses of shots further than merely identifying them with pieces of other people. “There arc five parts to the hook shot,” he explains to anyone who asks. As he continues, he picks up a ball and stands about eighteen feet from a basket. “Crouch,” he says, crouching, and goes on to demonstrate the other moves. “Turn your head to look for the basket, step, kick, follow through with your arms.” Once, as he was explaining this to me, the ball curled around the rim and failed to go in.

“What happened then?” I asked him.

“I didn’t kick high enough,” he said.

“Do you always know exactly why you’ve missed a shot?”

“Yes,” he said, missing another one.

“What happened that time?”

“I was talking to you. I didn’t concentrate. The secret of shooting is concentration.”

His set shot is borrowed from Ed Macauley, who was a St. Louis University All-American in the late forties and was later a star member of the Boston Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks. Macauley runs the basketball camp Bradley first went to when he was fifteen. In describing the set shot, Bradley is probably quoting a Macauley lecture. “Crouch like Groucho Marx,” he says. “Go off your feet a few inches. You shoot with your legs. Your arms merely guide the ball.” Bradley says that he has more confidence in his set shot than in any other. However, he seldom uses it, because he seldom has to. A set shot is a long shot, usually a twenty-footer, and Bradley, with his speed and footwork, can almost always take some other kind of shot, closer to the basket. He will take set shots when they are given to him, though. Two seasons ago, Davidson lost to Princeton, using a compact zone defense that ignored the remoter areas of the court. In one brief sequence, Bradley sent up seven set shots, missing only one. The missed one happened to rebound in Bradley’s direction, and he leaped up, caught it with one hand, and scored. Even his lay-up shot has an ancestral form; he is full of admiration for “the way Cliff Hagan pops up anywhere within six feet of the basket,” and he tries to do the same. Hagan is a former Kentucky star who now plays for the St. Louis Hawks. Because opposing teams always do everything they can to stop Bradley, he gets an unusual number of foul shots. When he was in high school, he used to imitate Bob Pettit, of the St. Louis Hawks, and Bill Sharman of the Boston Celtics, but now his free throw is more or less his own. With his left foot back about eighteen inches—“wherever it feels comfortable,” he says—he shoots with a deep-bending rhythm of knees and arms, one-handed, his left hand acting as a kind of gantry for the ball until the moment of release. What is most interesting, though, is that he concentrates his attention on one of the tiny steel eyelets that are welded under the rim of the basket to hold the net to the hoop—on the center eyelet, of course—before he lets fly. One night, he scored over twenty points on free throws alone; Cornell hacked at him so heavily that he was given twenty-one free throws, and he made all twenty-one, finishing the game with a total of thirty-seven points. When Bradley, working out alone, practices his set shots, hook shots, and jump shots, he moves systematically from one place to another around the basket, his distance from it being appropriate to the shot, and he does not permit himself to move on until he has made at least ten shots out of thirteen from each location. He applies this standard to every kind of shot, with either hand, from any distance. Many basketball players, including reasonably good ones, could spend five years in a gym and not make ten out of thirteen left-handed hook shots, but that is part of Bradley’s daily routine. He talks to himself while he is shooting, usually reminding himself to concentrate but sometimes talking to himself the way every high-school j.v. basketball player has done since the dim twenties—more or less imitating a radio announcer, and saying, as he gathers himself up for a shot, “It’s pandemonium in Dillon Gymnasium. The clock is running out. He’s up with a jumper. Swish!” Last summer, the floor of the Princeton gym was being resurfaced, so Bradley had to put in several practice sessions at the Lawrenceville School. His first afternoon at Lawrenceville, he began by shooting fourteen-foot jump shots from the right side. He got off to a bad start, and he kept missing them. Six in a row hit the back rim of the basket and bounced out. He stopped, looking discomfited, and seemed to be making an adjustment in his mind. Then he went up for another jump shot from the same spot and hit it cleanly. Four more shots went in without a miss, and then he paused and said, “You want to know something? That basket is about an inch and a half low.” Some weeks later, I went back to Lawrenceville with a steel tape, borrowed a stepladder, and measured the height of the basket. It was nine feet ten and seven-eighths inches above the floor, or one and one-eighth inches too low.


Thomas Piketty’s Motte and Bailey: Don’t expect new research to convince the egalitarians’ leading ido (Vincent Geloso, Jan 18 2024, City Journal)

To understand the contemporary debate about income inequality, it helps to be familiar with the deceptive rhetorical technique known as the motte-and-bailey. The motte-and-bailey involves a party making a tenuous, radical claim, then redirecting the argument toward a more agreed-upon, defensible claim when challenged on the radical one, only later to return to the tenuous claim. The technique is named for a style of medieval defensive settlements, in which a defensible stone keep (the motte) is situated on a raised earthwork. A courtyard and ditch (the bailey) surround the motte. The motte is the stronger position, while the bailey is the weaker. Defenders retreat to the motte when attacked, then, once the threat has subsided, return to the bailey.

Economist Thomas Piketty and his collaborators Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman are skilled motte-and-bailey technicians, extending indefensible claims about rising inequality, retreating to agreed-upon facts of social and economic change, and then reclaiming their radical baileys once attacks fade. […]

This radical bailey position is made untenable in three ways. First, my work with Phil Magness, John Moore, and Phil Schlosser (published in Economic Journal and Economic Inquiry) suggests that Piketty was careless in his usage of historical source materials and made numerous important errors in estimating inequality pre-1960. One involved his application of a rough estimation of income, though original sources contained data that could have enabled a more precise calculation. My coauthors and I tried to refine these pre-1960 estimates. Further, Piketty’s work contained significant historical inaccuracies (such as overlooking the exemption of state and local government employees from federal taxes before 1938) and misrepresented several steps in his methodology. We addressed these errors, too. Overall, we discovered that Piketty overstated inequality levels before the 1960s by about 20 percent.

Second, our work in Economic Inquiry showed that most of the levelling in the 1930s occurred as a result of the wiping out of capital gains. Roughly four-fifths of the “golden age” of equality (between 1950 and 1980) owed to the Great Depression, not tax policy. This finding is hard to celebrate because it means that greater equality was achieved while everyone was getting poorer. It also eliminates most of the purported influence of higher tax rates in generating the “golden age” of equality.

Third, the work of Gerald Auten and David Splinter shows that the golden age was not so golden. Once they corrected for how tax policy often encouraged changes in how taxpayers organized their income sources according to corporate or personal identities, they found that inequality started from a higher floor in the 1960s than Piketty and his colleagues presume. They also find a milder increase in inequality since the 1980s.


The 1990s card game that ‘predicted’ 9/11, Donald Trump, Covid and the Capitol riot: Illuminati: New World Order continues to attract conspiracy theorists three decades after its launch for its apparently uncanny ability to foretell the future (Joe Sommerlad, 29 April 2021, The Independent)

Illuminati: New World Order was released by Steve Jackson Games and cast the player as a puppet-master pursuing world domination on behalf of their chosen mythic secret society, the game offering a choice of the Bavarian Illuminati, the Discordian Society, the UFOs, the Servants of Cthulhu, the Bermuda Triangle and the Gnomes of Zurich.

The goal of Illuminati – spun off from the same company’s 1982 board game that was in turn inspired by The Illuminatis! Trilogy (1975) fantasy novels by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson – is to develop and consolidate a power structure through which to rule the globe from the shadows on behalf of your chosen order, manipulating society and dealing out apocalyptic blows to your opponents as you go.

“Maybe the Illuminati are behind this game,” Mr Shea wrote in his introduction to the original game’s rulebook.

“They must be – they are, by definition, behind everything.”

While the game’s preoccupation with globalist deep state conspiracy themes was clearly wildly ahead of its time, anticipating our bamboozled, boggle-brained era of fictional election-rigging claims, QAnon, anti-vaxxers, 5G paranoia and seething app-based nonsense cauldrons like Telegram, it’s the 2,000AD, Tarot-style illustrations on the cards themselves that are the real source of fascination. […]

Illuminati has long-since been discontinued and become a collector’s item, with unsealed decks sold on Amazon and eBay for almost $2,000, the wildly inflated price an indicator of high demand among a certain sort of feverish-minded consumer.

In addition to the game’s artwork, a further source of intrigue is the fact that the Secret Service raided the offices of Steve Jackson Games in Austin, Texas, on 1 March 1990 and confiscated hard drives and documents, some of which pertained to the board game.

While conspiracy theorists believe this represented the feds moving in to hastily hush up Illuminati and stop the developers revealing the existence of its secret societies to the wider world (why would you choose to make that information public in board game form, rather than, say, by hosting a press conference?), this is simply untrue.

One of the company’s employees, Loyd Blankenship, was also a hacker who served as the system operator for a messaging board that had published a stolen set of files detailed how America’s 911 emergency response systems worked, a fact the Secret Service had been tipped off to and been a granted a search warrant to investigate.


CRACKING THE CODE OF LINEAR B (Theodore Nash, 1/18/24, Antigone)

It is one thing to excavate material, but quite another to publish it. Though Evans did produce the monumental Palace of Minos (6 vols, 1921–35), this was more a synthesis of Minoan culture as he had come to understand it than a proper archaeological publication. When Evans died in 1941 (believing, if we can credit Maurice Bowra’s report, that Knossos had just been bombed by the Germans), the vast bulk of the tablets remained unpublished. So responsibility for this material passed to Sir John Myres, the recently retired Wykeham Professor of Ancient History at Oxford. Myres had worked with Evans on Crete as far back as the 1890s, but in his retirement lacked the vigour required for this difficult task.

That Evans had published so few of the tablets in his lifetime undoubtedly delayed the possibility of decipherment. When investigating an unknown script, the greater the quantity of evidence available, the greater the possibility that recurring patterns may become visible, and from these the underlying structures deduced. Alice Kober, a professor at Brooklyn College, embraced this challenge in spite of the limited material, managing to make observations that guided the way to a successful decipherment.

From 1943 to 1950, Kober published a series of articles in which she demonstrated that Linear B was used to spell an inflected language – that is, a language (like Latin and Greek) which changes the endings of words to express their grammatical function. Kober would eventually collaborate with Myres to get the Knossos tablets published, but died in 1950, aged only 43, too early to see flowers blossom in the garden that she had so painstakingly tended.

More significant even than the publication of the Knossos tablets was the beginning of excavation atop the Englianos ridge in Western Messenia in 1939. Here Carl Blegen, returning to Greece after his great excavations at Troy, would uncover the Palace of Nestor at the Homeric “sandy Pylos”. On the first day of excavation he uncovered the palace’s archive room, and in that year alone found some 600 tablets. He entrusted study and publication of these to one of his graduate students, Emmett Bennett, who, after the interruption of war, was able to complete from photographs a study of the Linear B signs in the Pylos tablets. This in 1947: in 1951 he added a full transcription of the same tablets, which would provide a major stimulus to Ventris.

Especially in recent years, which have seen a new celebration of Kober’s work, it is probably Bennett’s achievement which is the most overlooked in popular accounts. But it was he who established which variations were possible within individual signs (as I vs I) and which truly separated two signs (as G vs C). Without this, of course, no attempt at decipherment could stand on steady feet.

It was against this background that a young English architect took an interest in the problem. When Michael Ventris was still a pupil at Stowe School he saw a display of Greek and Minoan art at Burlington House; and by the sort of accident that changes the path of one’s life, was given an impromptu tour by Sir Arthur Evans, who happened also to be visiting. After viewing some tablets, Ventris had to confirm something that he had heard: “Did you say the tablets haven’t been deciphered, Sir?”