Friday, September 18, 2020

Nicholas Flammarion: the Scientist who Wanted to Believe

If you ever wondered where this image came from, I can tell you: it's from an 1888 book called  L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire  by a French astronomer named Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842-1925). The name of the artist is unrecorded, but Flammarion designed all the illustrations in his books, so I think we can consider him at least the co-creator. It represents, I think, his understanding of science as a way to see beyond the limits of our little world to the unimagined wonders just over the horizon.

Flammarion was a fascinating character, a scientist who straddled its boundaries in two directions. He was a great popularizer, author of many books and articles for a mass audience and for a while the publisher of a science magazine for the masses. He was also very interested in spiritualism, ghosts, and the like, which led eventually to his being more or less banned from serious scientific circles.

Flammarion's first famous book was published in 1862, when he was only 20. La Pluralité des Mondes Habitées (The Plurality of Habitable Worlds) considered which of the other planets might be inhabited, which intrigued Europeans of the day enough to sell a lot of copies. This launched Flammarion on his career and also made him the century's most famous explorer of the idea of aliens. He later wrote two more books on the same theme and also a novel told from the point of view of a living comet. It has to be said that while Flammarion had a lot of ideas, as a writer he was no match for his countryman Jules Verne.

Like many people of his time, Flammarion was fascinated by psychic phenomena and spiritual mediums. He wanted, it seems, to find scientific proof of spirits and the afterlife. He wanted to believe. But he found, like many of his own time and since, that without some kind of scientific evidence he simply could not. He wrote:

It is by the scientific method alone that we may make progress in the search for truth. Religious belief must not take the place of impartial analysis. We must be constantly on our guard against illusions.

He carried out study after study of ghosts, séances, telepathy, and more. He made a two-year long study of automatic writing, which many thought was dictated by spirits. After working with a dozen of the most famous practitioners in Europe he concluded, "the subconscious mind is the explanation and there is no evidence for the spirit hypothesis." After years of studying mediums he complained, "It is infinitely to be regretted that we cannot trust the loyalty of mediums. They almost always cheat." 

Over the years he accumulated many cases of phenomena that he thought could not be explained materially, and he argued that science ought to take this seriously. But he was never able to convince himself that these random anomalies proved the existence of spirits or life after death:

This is very far from being demonstrated. The innumerable observations which I have collected during more than forty years all prove to me the contrary. No satisfactory identification has been made. The communications obtained have always seemed to proceed from the mentality of the group, or when they are heterogeneous, from spirits of an incomprehensible nature. The being evoked soon vanishes when one insists on pushing him to the wall and having the heart out of his mystery. That souls survive the destruction of the body I have not the shadow of a doubt. But that they manifest themselves by the processes employed in séances the experimental method has not yet given us absolute proof. I add that this hypothesis is not at all likely. If the souls of the dead are about us, upon our planet, the invisible population would increase at the rate of 100,000 a day, about 36 millions a year, 3 billions 620 millions in a century, 36 billions in ten centuries, etc.—unless we admit re-incarnations upon the earth itself. How many times do apparitions or manifestations occur? When illusions, auto-suggestions, hallucinations are eliminated what remains? Scarcely anything. Such an exceptional rarity as this pleads against the reality of apparitions.

For his trouble he ended up shunned by both spiritual believers, who thought him a disruptive skeptic, and scientists, who thought him a crank.

Flammarion dreamed of wonderful worlds: of planets populated by alien beings, of planes filled with spirits, of secret knowledge that would be revealed by some combination of scientific rigor and spiritual practice. He never found them, but to some extent he did imagine them, and through his stories and the engravings he commissioned he shared those visions with the rest of us.

The Baboon Police



Baboons were Trained in Ancient Egypt to Catch Criminals

The most surprising use for trained baboons was as police animals. Hieroglyphs and artwork has survived the ages depicting Egyptian authorities using baboons on leashes to apprehend criminals, in much the way modern police would use a dog. One shocking bit of classical Egyptian artwork depicts authorities unleashing a baboon on a thief in a marketplace, and the criminal begging them to call the animal off as it bites his leg.

Now there's something I did not know.

Links 18 September 2020

Madonna of the Stars by Jacopo Tintoretto, detail

Inventors who later lament their creations; did you know the woman who launched the campaign for Mother's Day was later arrested for violently protesting its commercial excess? Other lamenters include the inventors of the K-cup and the office cube.

The delightful Hackney Mosaic Project. And here.

Video of Thai farmers herding hundreds of ducks.

Kenan Malik takes on the notion of "white privilege." Because, he says, poor white people in the US have no privilege that protects them from incarceration or police violence, and in fact they experience both at about the same rate as black people.

Eighty-four online-only, open-access (OA) journals in the sciences, and nearly 100 more in the social sciences and humanities, have disappeared from the internet over the past 2 decades as publishers stopped maintaining them.

Huge art installation "inspired by the elaborate courtship rituals of bowerbirds."

New California law undoes the rules that kept inmate firefighters from immediately becoming professional firefighters upon release, which I wrote about here.

Does the COVID-19 virus kill via a bradykinin cascade?

The name Karen is rapidly dropping in popularity. (The most common female baby name in the US last year was Olivia.)

Dark matter gets even weirder.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Bram Stoker's Sources

This list of the books Bram Stoker mentions in his notes for Dracula has been making its way around the internet:

Folklore and Superstition
The Book of Were-Wolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865)
Credulities Past and Present by William Jones (1880)
Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould (1877)
The Devil: His Origin, Greatness and Decadence by Rev. Albert Réville (1871)
The Folk-Tales of the Magyars by Rev. William Henry Jones and Lewis L. Kropf (1889)
Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and of Sailors — In All Lands and at All Times by Fletcher S. Bassett (1879)
On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery (1844) by Thomas Joseph Pettigrew
The Origin of Primitive Superstitions: And Their Development into the Worship of Spirits and the Doctrine of Spiritual Agency among the Aborigines of America by Rushton M. Dorman (1881) 
Sea Fables Explained by Henry W. Lee (1883)
Sea Monsters Unmasked by Henry W. Lee (1883) 
Traité des superstitions qui regardent les sacraments (1700-04) by Jean-Baptiste Thiers 
Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard (1885)

Dreams, Sleep, and Mesmerism
The Natural and the Supernatural: Or, Man — Physical, Apparitional and Spiritual by John Jones (1861) 
On the Truths contained in Popular Superstitions – with an Account of Mesmerism by Herbert Mayo (1851) 
Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors by Sir Thomas Browne (1646) 
The Other World: Or, Glimpses of the Supernatural — Being Facts, Records and Traditions by Rev. Frederick George Lee (1875)
Religio Medici or The Religion of a Doctor by Sir Thomas Browne (1646) 
The Theory of Dreams (1808) by Robert Gray and John Ferriar

Transylvania and Other Regions
An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: with various Political Observations Relating to Them (1820) by William Wilkinson
Germany, Present and Past (1879) by Sabine Baring-Gould
The Golden Chersonese by Isabella L. Bird (1883)
Magyarland: Being the Narrative of our Travels through the Highlands and Lowlands of Hungary by Nina Elizabeth Mazuchelli (1881) 
On the Track of the Crescent: Erratic Notes from the Piraeus to Pesth by Major E. C. Johnson (1885) 
Roumania: Past and Present by James Samuelson (1881) 
Round About the Carpathians by Andrew F. Crosse (1878) 
A Tarantasse Journey Through Eastern Russia in the Autumn of 1856 by W. A. Spottiswoode (1857) 
Transylvania: Its Products and its People by Charles Boner (1865) 

Anecdotes of Habits and Instincts of Birds, Reptiles and Fishes by Sarah Lee (1853) 
The Birds of Transylvania by Charles A. Danford and John A. Harvie-Brown (1875)
Fishery Barometer Manual by Robert Henry Scott (1887)
History and Mystery of Precious Stones by William Jones (1880) 
Superstition and Force — Essays on The Wager of Law, The Wager of Battle, The Ordeal and Torture by Henry Charles Lea (1878) 
A Whitby Glossary by Francis Kildale Robinson (1876) 

Plus there are these texts in the London Library that have Stoker's annotations in them:

L'Antiquité at au Moyen Age by Alfred Maury (1860) 
Narratives of Sorcery and Magic by Thomas Wright (1851)
Things not Generally Known. Popular Errors Explained, John Timbs (1858)

This list of sources is a good example of what I wrote about before, how the imaginations of 19th-century Europeans were stimulated by the vast array of knowledge they could easily access about the world.

On a more personal level it made me start thinking about all the books that influenced my own novel.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Who's Holding Up Best

From a recent study, via Marginal Revolutions:

Fans of horror films exhibit less psychological distress during COVID-19.

Fans of “prepper” films reported being more prepared for the pandemic.

Morbidly curious people exhibit greater positive resilience during COVID-19. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Bill Barr's Autocratic Theology

At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick interviews Donald Ayer, longtime Republican and Deputy Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, about the views of Attorney General Bill Barr:

You’ve known Bill Barr for a long time. And I think you’ve said that he took this job because there are things he wants to get done, that he has a fully realized worldview, both in terms of his view of the unitary executive, presidential power, an unbounded presidency. That’s part of it. There is another part of his worldview, which I think is a quasi-religious worldview. And I wondered if you’d be willing to talk about that a little.

I’ve spent some time lately reading some of the things he has written. He is a strong, believing Catholic, and that’s obviously a personal thing for him. And I don’t have any comment on that obviously. But one of the things that’s apparent when you read his various writings on the subject of executive power—the narrative he tells there for the country relating to religious belief is very similar and very parallel to his sense with regard to executive power. On executive power, he concocts a very wrong view that the founders actually intended the president to be a virtual autocrat. Never mind what you learned in eighth grade or high school about separation of powers and all of these ways that the different branches check each other, the checks and balances and all of that. Bill Barr’s view is that the founders intended a very strong executive who would be essentially immune from a whole variety of things, and that that reality was the reality in our country for the first almost 200 years. Well, that’s just utter hogwash.

But the key point is that in the ‘60s, or maybe the ‘70s, as he said, accelerating after Watergate, that all just went down the drain and we started attacking the executive in various ways. This is basically backward. The power of the president has gone into its ascendancy in the past 50 years. But that’s his view on that. And his personal role that he’s assigned himself is to restore that autocratic vision of the president.

Well, the same thing, on parallel way, is true of his views on religion. He sees the founders as people who were very concerned that Americans would remain a pious country of churchgoers whose strict religious moral views would govern them. And I guess he thinks that was the dominant story in our country, even though everyone else knows that our country was essentially created as a result of the rationalism, the enlightenment, the rise of empiricism and understanding of the world as a real physical place that had rules of its own.

But Barr sees the founders as focused overwhelmingly on piety and adherence to traditional Christian morals. And again, on a parallel with his views on autocracy, gosh, golly, gee, that went to hell in a hand basket starting in the ‘60s, with all the things that happened in the ‘60s and things that have happened since. And so again, his role that he sees for himself is to restore that. And a good microcosm of that, if you want to just think of one image, is Bill Barr ordering federal law enforcement people into Lafayette Park to clear out the park, so the president, the most vulgar, irreligious national leader we have ever had, could stride across Lafayette Park with a Bible in his hand and wave it at the camera in front of St. John’s Church.

So Barr has got this role for himself as a restorer of these worlds that never were. And essentially the only way he can perform that mission is by keeping Donald Trump happy. So that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re seeing him do whatever it takes to get Trump reelected and to keep Trump thinking that Barr is the guy who he needs to help him accomplish all this.

Sometimes I despair. We like to think if we educate people enough, they will have some understanding of how things are and how they used to be. But Bill Barr is by the  usual definition very well educated, and quite well read in the history of the US and its founding, but he is utterly and completely wrong about every historical question that matters to him. We simply can't expect the average American to be as well read as Barr is on these subjects; so how can we expect anyone to have a clue about American history and what it means now? 

Between those on the left who think the American Revolution was really a defense of slavery, and those on the right who think it was all about Christianity or autocracy, where are we? If the level of knowledge that Bill Barr has about the past is not enough to change his mind about it, is there any way to change anyone's mind?

Not Excited about Life on Venus

Lots of buzz in the news this week about two scientific papers arguing there must be life on Venus. They base their conclusion on the discovery of phosphine (PH3) in the Venusian clouds. Which I admit is pretty cool. Phosphine seems to be a byproduct of respiration among some bacteria, so it might be a sign of life. These scientists go on to say that no known inorganic process could produce it outside the titanic pressures of Jupiter's inner atmosphere, so there must be life  on Venus.

Maybe. But since we understand Venus' strange atmosphere only a little, and its conditions are very difficult to replicate on earth, who knows? Claims that methane and oxygen found on Mars are evidence of Martian life have not exactly panned out, and incidentally nobody knows what made those gases, either.

I despise scientific arguments that go, "I can't think of any other explanation, so it must be alien life." For one thing we still don't even understand how or why bacteria on Earth produce phosphine, so it might turn out to be a fairly simple reaction, 

I support dreaming up some way to study the Venusian clouds and sending a spacecraft to do it, but I am not optimistic that it will find life. I don't think we understand nearly enough about the universe for this sort of leaping to conclusions.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Orcas Gone Mad

The Guardian:

Scientists have been left baffled by incidents of orcas ramming sailing boats along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts.

In the last two months, from southern to northern Spain, sailors have sent distress calls after worrying encounters. Two boats lost part of their rudders, at least one crew member suffered bruising from the impact of the ramming, and several boats sustained serious damage.

The latest incident occurred on Friday afternoon just off A Coruña, on the northern coast of Spain. Halcyon Yachts was taking a 36-ft boat to the UK when an orca rammed its stern at least 15 times, according to Pete Green, the company’s managing director. The boat lost steering and was towed into port to assess damage.

Around the same time there were radio warnings of orca sightings 70 miles south, at Vigo, near the site of at least two recent collisions. On 30 August, a French-flagged vessel radioed the coastguard to say it was “under attack” from killer whales. Later that day, a Spanish naval yacht, Mirfak, lost part of its rudder after an encounter with orcas under the stern.

And more:

In one instance, a 46-foot delivery boat was surrounded by nine orcas off Cape Trafalgar in Spain. The whales, that can weight up to six tons, rammed the boat continuously for one hour, causing it to spin 180 degrees and the engine to shut down, according to crew member Victoria Morris.

Morris told the Observer that the attack, which happened on July 28, felt "totally orchestrated."

"The noise was really scary. They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat," Morris said. "And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other. It was so loud that we had to shout."

The orca pod had left by the time help arrived, but the boat still had to be towed to a nearby town called Barbate. Crew members later found the rudder missing its bottom layers and teeth marks along the underside of the ship.

Most likely this has all been done by one pod, but what if the rebellion spreads?

A Noble Woman of Medieval Korea

Images from a grave recently excavated in Gyeongyu, South Korea, dating to the Silla Kingdom, 7th-8th century CE. That's some fabulous archaeological skill right there, to expose all those tiny beads and the gold pieces of the earrings without removing them. The headpiece is gilt bronze.

As are the shoes. Which makes me wonder; did this woman actually walk around in bronze shoes, or was this just for the funeral?

Grave goods. If you want even bigger images, the History Blog has them.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Why the Fires?

Why is the US west burning? Everybody is saying "climate change," but that is only partly right. The basic reality is that dry forests burn. If you don't let small fires reduce the amount of fuel available, old wood builds up until any fire will be catastrophic. Scientists understand this perfectly well. They have pressured the federal and state governments to stop fighting all fires and to use controlled burns to reduce fuel. But this, it turns out, is really hard to do, because nobody like fires and any plan to start one intentionally is met by angry opposition.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire. . . .

Carl Skinner, another Cassandra, who started firefighting in Lassen County in 1968 and who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the U.S. Forest Service, sounded profoundly, existentially tired. “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”

“It’s painful,” said Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group. He, too, has been having the fire Cassandra conversation for 30 years. He’s not that hopeful, unless there’s a power change. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”

A six-word California fire ecology primer: The state is in the hole.

A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.

Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.

When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”

Part of the problem is that setting fires is inherently risky, and our systems are set up to avoid risk. With so many people living in the forests, a fire that gets even a little out of control could destroy homes and endanger lives, and who wants to take responsibility for that?

Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.”

Some of the experts cited in this article talk about wanting to burn a million acres a year, but when asked how that might happen, they are stumped. One suggested that if a fire destroyed San Diego, that might be enough. But then again it might not.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Tim Robinson, “Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage”

Tim Robinson’s 1986 book about Aran has been perfect for me in this crazy time: calm, soothing, richly interesting, rather sad but in a slow, reflective, elegiac way. Aran is the largest of three limestone islands off Ireland’s west coast, long fabled as the most unspoiled bit of old Erin. When Robinson, an English writer, arrived at Aran in 1972 the place was already becoming what it is today, a tourist spot for those who really want to get away from it all. But Robinson spoke Irish and had a knack for getting old men to talk to him, so he was able to record a hoard of stories about Aran’s past that delightfully enriches his account of walking the island’s stony shores.

Robinson actually wrote two books about Aran, of which Pilgrimage is the first. Pilgrimage traces the circumference of the island, an imagined walk all the way around its shores. Labyrinth, the second volume, explores the interior, and since I’ve already ordered it I imagine I’ll be reviewing it later. Aran (or Inishmore, as it is called by people who apply the name Aran to the whole island chain) is a long, narrow island with essentially two sides. The southern side faces the Atlantic and is exposed to its fearful storms; nobody lives there, and much of the coast is daunting cliffs as much as 300 feet (90 m) tall. Everyone lives on the northern, protected side where the coast is a series of bays, headlands, and shingle beaches. So the book is divided into two parts, one that describes the unpeopled cliffs and the other the harbors and seaweed beds of the settled side. 

As Robinson walks his readers around the island he tells us about the geology of this limestone rock, and then the names of each feature, and then the stories behind the names. Every few hundred yards he has a longer story about some particular bay, cliff, or beach, or some fascinating bit of island history. He starts at the east end of the island and almost immediately we get this:

In the last century emigrant ships sailing out of Galway for America used to come through Sunda Ghriora [the strait east of Aran] and sometimes had to wait for days for a favourable wind. Then if there were Aran people on board their relatives and friends who had already said goodbye to them and may even have held a wake for them, knowing that in most cases the parting was forever, were given another sight of them by this chance that was perhaps more cruel than kind, but at a distance that must have made it an unreal, wordless and ghostly reappearance. The way by which the bereaved came down to the shore to wave and weep is a little valley called Gleann na nDeor. This phrase is the Irish equivalent of the old preachers’ platitude for this world as a place of sorrow, the “vale of tears.” (33)

Then around to the southern shore of the island and the great cliffs. As Robinson writes, an ordinary map all but ignores a cliff, making it a mere line between land and sea, but the cliffs of Aran have their own geography, and their own history, too. The cliff face “was a wide province of the islanders’ mental landscape, a theatre of anecdote, tradition, boast and dream ” (63).

These cliffs have ledges in them, because the thick layers of limestone that make them up are separated by thin layers of softer clay-stone that erode more quickly, creating slots in the cliff face. In late spring those ledges are covered with seabird nests, which the locals used to raid for feathers, eggs, and meat. This was done by lowering the "cliff man" 100 or 200 feet down on a dodgy rope – in the dark, because the nests had to be raided at night – until he found the ledge. He would then crawl along the ledge feeling for nests, trying to catch the birds sleeping and strangle them before they could cry out and warn the others. The birds and eggs were stuffed into sacks, and when the cliff man could carry no more he would tug on the rope and be pulled up. Nobody knows how old this practice was, but it was first recorded by outsiders in the famine years, and it died out during World War II. The cliff men were local heroes, and in the 1970s people still remembered the most famous ones well and knew many stories about their heroics and their phlegmatic attitude toward danger.

Some of the bays along this shore have names related to wrecking, like Bay of the Timber or Bay of the Pine Boards:

Many of the old homes of the islands have rafters cut from beams washed ashore and carried off and hidden before the coastguards or the landlords’ agent got wind of them, and even today islanders keep an eye out for such prizes. Recently an elderly and, as I had thought, frail couple, neighbours of ours in the west of the island, managed to drag a thick tree trunk eighteen feet long up a steep shingle bank to where they could bring a cart for it. When I made some remark about this feat the old lady replied, “Ni raibh ann ach pleisiur!” — “It was nothing but a pleasure!” (40)

The most famous feature of Aran’s coast is the great fort known as Dun Oengus. Alas, nobody really knows how old this is, who lived here, or why it was built, and Robinson makes even the tentative dates and theories I have seen elsewhere seem like pure guesswork. Robinson does dismiss the notion that the fort was once round but lost half its structure to the sea; such a great fall of rock, he says, would still be piled around the base of the cliff, since it would have taken 10,000 years for the waves to wash it away, and since there is no such pile there has been no major collapse of this cliff since the Ice Age. Besides there are two other forts in these islands that back up against the sea, although both of the others are on peninsulas. Robinson fills out his chapter on the fort by regaling the reader with all the theories that have been advanced by every sort of historian and madman over the years, especially those concerning the Fir Bolgs. The traditional history of Ireland, as written down by medieval monks, tells of a series of invasions by people who each displaced the previous inhabitants. The Irish, ancestors of the current inhabitants, appear in this narrative as the Milesians, and the people they drove out were called the Fir Bolgs. Nineteenth-century antiquarians decided that Aran must have been the last refuge of the Fir Bolgs, and Dun Oengus their last stronghold, their backs up against the cliffs of the sea.

I could go on and on, but I have to limit myself, so as to leave you reasons to pick up this book yourself. So we go around the island to the north, inhabited side.

Aran's economy, such as it was depended on three things: fishing, raising potatoes in soil made out of sand and seaweed, and kelping. Kelping meant the gathering of seaweed to burn for the ash, which lasted on Aran from the early 1700s to 1948. Kelp ash was a valuable commodity as a feed stock for Britain's developing chemical industry, which consumed thousands of tons of ash every year for making soap, gunpower, and a hundred other things. Kelping therefore became a major industry on all of Britain's rocky shores but especially in the Scottish highlands and the west of Ireland. 

Fishing and nest raiding were both masculine pursuits, but kelping was done by whole families, so it was a big part of the Aran experience. It was backbreaking labor, cutting the seaweed in waist deep water, carrying it up to the shore, a race because it could only be done at low tide three or four days a month. Then it had to dry, and rain at the wrong time could ruin it. Then it was burned in hand-built rock kilns, a process that took 36 hours of constant tending. Then it was sold to an agent who tested it for its iodine content and, the islanders thought, regularly cheated them. Robinson passes on a little rhyme sung for him by an old woman, which he translates; the place names are all rocky points where kelp was gathered and burned:

Dun an Ni broke my heart;
Beal a Chalaidh took my life;
Leic Mhor put me under the earth.

Now all of that is over, and the locals live half off subsidies and half off tourists; not that they don't still fish and raise potatoes in gardens they build out of sand and seaweed, but that is no longer the economic center. They have health care, and schools, and they don't have to worry about starving. And they are mostly just like everyone else.

If you want to get away from our sad and crazy nation, but not to someplace too exciting or disturbing, and I cannot recommend any journey more than following Tim Robinson to Aran.

Robinson's wonderful map of the island is here. In 1934 Robert Flaherty (whose first film was Nanook of the North) made a film about life on Aran called Man of Aran that is still quite famous; you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.

Friday, September 11, 2020

America in this Moment

 So predictable:

Officials dealing with the catastrophic fires on the West Coast have had to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by antifascist activists, publicly pleading that people verify information before sharing it.

Despite their efforts, misinformation about the origin of the fires continues to spread on Facebook and Twitter.

Several law enforcement agencies in Oregon said they had been flooded with inquiries about rumors that activists were responsible. On Thursday, several journalists reporting on fires near the city of Molalla, Ore., said they had been confronted by a group of armed people who were worried about unverified reports of arsonists in the area.

The rumors appear to have started on Wednesday night, after the Portland Police Bureau warned people on Twitter about the risk of fire during demonstrations. But there is no evidence that activists have deliberately set fires.

“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon did announce on Thursday that the Almeda Fire, which incinerated neighborhoods and is linked to two deaths, may have been deliberately set. No suspects were publicly identified, but the Ashland police chief told The Oregonian that no information pointed toward the loose collective of antifascist activists known as antifa.

“One thing I can say is that the rumor it was set by Antifa is 100% false information,” Chief Tighe O’Meara told the newspaper in an email.

Links 11 September 2020

Greg Lecoeur, Reefscape

Laid off from their jobs in a Japanese restaurant, Rwandan mothers have found new work babysitting Japanese kids over Zoom

The real America: the 24 Hours of Lemons car race, which you can only enter with a car that cost you less than $500 and still has the engine and power train it came with. In the news because the race has started a separate category for electric vehicles. (NY Times)

Australia's changing relationship with China; after decades of courting China to pursue trade, Australia is distancing itself over concerns about its sovereignty.

Hannah Bullen-Ryner makes ephemeral bird "paintings" out of leaves, flowers, and seeds she finds in the forest.

The Album Amicorum, a sort of illustrated signature collection, of international art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647).

In France, debate erupts over the word ensauvagement. (NY Times)

Trying to make fitness trackers work for people in wheelchairs.

Have white people gentrified Black Lives Matter?

History and Hedgehogs at Nea Paphos on Cyprus.

NY Times piece on how the Chinese government uses WeChat to monitor and influence conversation among Chinese people all over the world. I think Trump is right and the US should ban it.

Sad NY Times piece about suicide in rural India, which never mentions what is really happening: peasant life is simply not compatible with modernity, and so modernization always involves the destruction of the peasantry. The best-case scenario is that 90 percent move to the cities.

Study Suggests Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Was Responsible for 19% of August COVID-19 Cases

The history of punctuation 

Anxious Americans are grinding their teeth so much dentists are seeing an "epidemic of fractured teeth" (NY Times)

Super-recognizers, who can recognize and remember faces from a tiny glimpse, are now working for the police. I guess they must be better than software, so far.

In despair about the American police, violent and utterly separated from the communities they are supposed to serve? Then read about Brazil and consider how much worse it could be. (NY Times)

The anti-bourgeois: a glimpse into the lives of Americans who live in RVs and travel around the country from job to job, campground to campground. (Washington Post)

Mothers for QAnon (NY Times)

Using AlphaZero to test chess variants, in pursuit of a more "beautiful" game

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Coffin Confessor

 Via Tyler Cowen, an interesting kind of business has made the news in Australia:

Bill Edgar has, in his own words, “no respect for the living”. Instead, his loyalty is to the newly departed clients who hire Mr Edgar — known as “the coffin confessor” — to carry out their wishes from beyond the grave.

Mr Edgar runs a business in which, for $10,000, he is engaged by people “knocking on death’s door” to go to their funerals or gravesides and reveal the secrets they want their loved ones to know.

“They’ve got to have a voice and I lend my voice for them,” Mr Edgar said.

Mr Edgar, a Gold Coast private investigator, said the idea for his graveside hustle came when he was working for a terminally ill man.

“We got on to the topic of dying and death and he said he’d like to do something,” Mr Edgar said.

“I said, ‘Well, I could always crash your funeral for you’,” and a few weeks later the man called and took Mr Edgar up on his offer and a business was born.

In almost two years he has “crashed” 22 funerals and graveside events, spilling the tightly-held secrets of his clients who pay a flat fee of $10,000 for his service. . . .

In the case of his very first client Mr Edgar said he was instructed to interrupt the man’s best friend when he was delivering the eulogy.

“I was to tell the best mate to sit down and shut up,” he said. “He knew the best mate had been trying to have an affair with his wife.” 

“I also had to ask three mourners to stand up and to please leave the service and if they didn’t I was to escort them out.

“My client didn’t want them at his funeral and, like he said, it is his funeral and he wants to leave how he wanted to leave, not on somebody else’s terms.”

Despite the confronting nature of his job, Mr Edgar said “once you get the crowd on your side, you’re pretty right” because mourners were keen to know what was left unsaid.

Original article here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Respectfully Sheweth

Last week a committee appointed by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser reported back that the city should remove a long list of monuments and change the names of dozens of schools and other city buildings. The list of names includes the usual suspects, like John Tyler, Woodrow Wilson, and Thomas Jefferson. But they also recommended renaming the Franklin School, a landmark institution founded just after the Civil War.

Against that I must protest. There are no better Americans than Benjamin Franklin. None. As exhibit A I offer this, the first petition presented to the US Congress on the subject of slavery:

To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

The Memorial of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage, and the Improvement of the Condition of the African Race.

Respectfully Sheweth,

That from a regard for the happiness of mankind an association was formed several years since in this state by a number of the citizens of various religious denominations for promoting the abolition of slavery and for the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage. A just and accurate conception of the true principles of liberty, as it spreads through the land, produced accessions to their numbers, many friends to their cause and legislative cooperation with their views, which by the blessing of Divine Providence, have been successfully directed to the relieving from bondage a large number of their fellow creatures of the African Race. They have also the satisfaction to observe, that in consequence of that spirit of philanthropy and genuine liberty which is generally diffusing its beneficial influence, similar institutions are gradually forming at home and abroad.

That mankind are all formed by the same almighty being, alike objects of his care and equally designed for the enjoyment of happiness, the Christian Religion teaches us to believe, and the political creed of America fully coincides with the position. Your memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the distresses arising from slavery, believe it their indispensable duty to present this subject to your notice. They have observed with great satisfaction that many important and salutary powers are vested in you for “promoting the welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States”. And as they conceive, that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of colour, to all descriptions of people, so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation, that nothing, which can be done for the relief of the unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or delayed.

From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the portion, and is still the birthright of all men, influenced by the strong ties of humanity and the principles of their institution, your memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bonds of slavery and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom. Under these impressions they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of slavery that you will be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone in this land of freedom, are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in servile subjection, that you will devise means for removing this inconsistency from the character of the American people, that you will promote mercy and justice towards this distressed race, and that you will step to the very verge of the powers vested in your for discouraging every species of traffick in the persons of our fellow men.

B. Franklin
President of the Society
Philadelphia, Feb. 13, 1790

Of course that is just the beginning of Franklin's contributions. He was his age's most vocal defender of American Indian rights to their land and the sacred nature of treaties made with Indian nations. He was almost the last prominent man working for peace as his American and British compatriots drifted toward war; but once war was joined he threw himself in to the cause of his nation. He helped write both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He was a steady advocate for democracy and against any sort of American aristocracy, unmovable in his advocacy for freedom of speech and religion. Plus his invention of the lightning rod saved untold thousands of lives. He was even funny.

If he is not good enough for us to name schools after  him, nobody can possibly be good enough. Because there just is no one better.

Tom Friedman on Dignity and Humiliation

Tom Friedman writes that instead of Foreign Affairs Columnist, his official title, he often refers to himself as the Times' Humiliation and Dignity Columnist:

Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you. 

By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

I’ve seen firsthand the power of humiliation in foreign policy: Vladimir Putin’s macho act after Russia’s humiliation at losing the Cold War; Iraqi Sunnis who felt humiliated by a U.S. invasion force that pushed them out of Iraq’s army and government, stripping them of rank and status; Israeli Sephardic Jews who felt humiliated by Ashkenazi Jewish elites, something Bibi Netanyahu has long manipulated; Palestinians feeling humiliated at Israeli checkpoints; Muslim youth in Europe feeling humiliated by the Christian majority; and China questing to become the world’s dominant power, after what Chinese themselves call their “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. . . .

In a much talked-about new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel says “the politics of humiliation” is also at the heart of Trump’s appeal.

“Trump was elected by tapping a wellspring of anxieties, frustrations and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer,” Sandel notes. These grievances “are not only economic but also moral and cultural; they are not only about wages and jobs but also about social esteem.”

Unless Biden finds a way to speak to the sense of humiliation felt by many working-class voters, Sandel warns, even Trump’s failure to deal with the pandemic may not be enough to turn these voters against him. The reason? “Resentment borne of humiliation is the most potent political sentiment of all,” Sandel explains.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Chinks in Time

The little field to the south-east of the lake, where the boreen around it meets the road, is called Garrai Wilson; a garrai is a "garden", which in Aran means a potato- or a vegetable-plot. . . . As for Wilson, nobody remembers who he was, but in the census of 1821 I found:

Robert Wilson, half-pay Lieutenant; Royal Marines, age 36, Head Lightkeeper

Ann, his wife, age 30

Robert, his son, age 5

Ann, his daughter, age 3

Eliza, his daughter, age 1

In those days the only lighthouse was above Eochaill on the highest point of the island, whence its ruins still look down toward the lake. Wilson must have leased this garden to grow vegetables for himself and that young family living up there on the windy skyline in the disused signal tower by the lighthouse. Why was he retired on half pay? Perhaps he had a stiff knee which he allowed to be understood had a Napoleonic bullet lodged in it, but which in fact he broke by tripping over a bollard in Plymouth docks while turning round to look after a passing shop-girl, Ann. I picture him in this field, paunchy, grunting, puzzling ineffectually with his spade of unfamiliar design at the shallow stony soil of Aran. He straightens up, putting his knuckles to his spine, and sees through the reeds a heron swallowing an eel. He stands there open-mouthed, long-dead Lieutenant Wilson, keeper of the long-extinguished light, never suspecting that we are watching him through words, those chinks in time. 

– Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986)

The Garden on Labor Day


A bit of a mess, but I like it this way.

Bourgeois Ambivalence

When I ponder what goes on in America, and in my own family, I keep coming back to one point: our intense ambivalence about the disciplined middle class existence we hold up as the standard of a good life.

The path through life that defines "success" for us looks something like this: study hard for a long time, at least through college and perhaps through graduate school. Then work hard at a demanding job, putting in long hours. Get married and stay married. Don't drink too much or use too many drugs. Shun violence. Keep your lawn neat, your bathroom spotless. Exercise. Eat right. Floss. Do it day after day, all day. Never slip up and say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or do the wrong thing when somebody is watching. Never lose control.

There is in our world a suspicion of ecstasy in any form. We are more likely to practice yoga than go to the sort of church where people tremble and fall on the floor. With us, it's all about self-discipline, even spiritually. Drunkenness, which used to be celebrated in a thousand ways, is now a health threat nobody would dare to laugh about.

I am not saying that this is arbitrary or even wrong; so far as I can tell, we emphasize this way of living because it is the only way we know to make civilization work. For many people, including me, it works pretty well psychologically as well. People who escape from these limits, for example by winning the lottery, sometimes end up wishing they hadn't. People who keep working live longer and more happily than those who retire early. But many people hate our disciplined, tightly constrained way of living and either openly or secretly seethe against the limits it imposes. I think this anger, this restless pushing against the limits of middle class life, drives much of what happens in our world

Something that sticks in my memory is what a county official in Tennessee told Tom Friedman:

Employers want someone who will get up, dress up, show up, shut up and never give up.

Is that the person you want to be, how you want to be remembered? "He showed up and shut up." 

I doubt it. Our popular culture celebrates, almost exclusively, the heroes who refuse to give in to the system, who break all the rules, who insist on doing things in their own way. This is, I think, our rebellion against the constraints we live under.

It may be that I am describing, not my own culture, but all cultures; maybe this ambivalence of order vs. freedom is a defining feature of human life and maybe among other social mammals as well. I don't know. But I do believe that it is one of the central features of our own time, and our own psyches.

What does it explain? Well, why are some people so enraged by the thought of freeloaders who collect welfare or disability checks? It seems to me that if they loved their jobs they would feel sorry for those who can't work, not hate them. The rage, I think, stems from the dark side of our disciplined working lives, the frustration and weariness that builds up over decades of toil. Plus by their very existence such people undermine the principle that everyone has to work, which is one of the motivations that keeps people getting up and going to the office every day. I watched my own very liberal wife turn against old-style welfare when she had to go back to full-time work while her children were still toddlers; if I have to work, she said, then having children is no excuse for anyone else not to work, and I'm not paying for it. 

Why are some conservatives so opposed to things like extending unemployment benefits in a recession or expanding disability? Because they believe that only the threat of hunger and homelessness is strong enough to keep many people working. Because they share my sense that the demands of working life in our age are very great, and they worry that most people just won't do it if they don't have to.

Why were hippies so polarizing? Because they challenged the system of bourgeois discipline.

Why does rising inequality matter? Because the survival of our world depends on most of us knuckling under to the demands of the system, and we only do that because we think the system is in some sense fair. We consider the rewards we get for our efforts to be reasonable. But a world in which most people labor all their lives for less money than insiders can make off a single stock trade strikes many of us as completely unreasonable, as unfair. And if the system is so unfair, why participate? And if people won't participate because they think the rewards they get are not reasonable, the system collapses.

How does racism generate such large gaps between black and white educational and economic success? I don't want to deny that sometimes black people are just not hired etc., but it strikes me that those barriers are not high enough to account for the disparity; after all immigrants from Nigeria and Jamaica also face racism, and they are richer and better educated than native-born whites. I think racism does its damage by intensifying the ambivalence over the bourgeois path through life. Young black kids face the same high mountain to climb as everyone else, along with a sense that this is a *white* mountain, a system designed and constructed by and for white folks – which is true. Not only are they expected to "show up and shut up" for the man, they are supposed to show up and shut up for the *white* man. Every racist slight they face, intentional or not, reinforces a suspicion that this path is not for them. Why keep going when no matter how hard you try you still get harassed by the cops if you walk the street in a sweatshirt? And since, remember, I think this is a very demanding way of life that is hard for everyone, it doesn't take much discouragement to knock people off the narrow path of middle class existence.

I think this is an even bigger issue for American Indians, which is why by the usual metrics they are the poorest group in the country. It also explains persistent poverty among white communities for example in Appalachia; to them the bourgeois path is how city folks live, not them, so to pursue it is to give up their own identities.

Why do Americans, and especially poor Americans, idolize musicians? Because music is a path to success that doesn't require you to knuckle under to the demands of middle class life, a path that in fact encourages you to be wild and crazy and break rules.

What do young anarchists, and even anarchist philosophy professors, want? To be free. And to them (in particular to my sons), if you have to get up and go every day to a job you dislike or school you despise, then you are not free. If you have to work whether you like it or not, then you are actually a slave. (Aristotle, incidentally, agreed with this, and he would have said that those people who can't seem to make it without going to work every day are by nature fit only for slavery.) To people who feel this way about work and school, pointing out that this is the only route to a decent life is met with, "So you want me to become a slave like you?"

This is why I support a more regulated society, along the lines of Denmark or Sweden; a mandated month of vacation does something to rebalance our lives, and things like universal health insurance make the system more fair and more tolerable. This is also why I and many others are intrigued by Universal Basic Income schemes; if there were an out, some of the pressure the system applies might be eased.

Anyway it seems to me that you can't understand the craziness of our time without understanding that many and maybe most of us have serious misgivings about the fundamentals of the way we live.

Emotional Disarmament

 Pico Iyer in the Times:

It’s hardly surprising that so many citizens, unable to find wisdom in the political sphere (which, almost by definition, thrives on either/ors), look to religious figures for a more inclusive vision. Pope Francis, in Wim Wenders’s glorious documentary “A Man of His Word,” stresses the importance of not imposing our views on others and never thinking in terms of simplistic us-versus-thems: Would God, Francis asks, love Gandhi any less than he does a priest or a nun simply because the Mahatma wasn’t a Christian? The Dalai Lama, for his part, points out that to be pro-Tibetan is not to be anti-Chinese, not least because Tibet and China will always be neighbors; the welfare of either depends on the other. He begins his days by praying for the health of his “Chinese brothers and sisters.”

Traveling across Japan with the Dalai Lama a year before the pandemic, I heard him say often that after watching the planet up close as a leader of his people for what was then 79 years, he felt the world was suffering through an “emotional crisis.” The cure, he said, was “emotional disarmament.” What he meant by the striking phrase was that we can see beyond panic and rage and confusion only by using our minds, and that part of the mind that doesn’t deal in binaries. Emotional disarmament might prove even more feasible than the nuclear type, insofar as most of us can reform our minds more easily than we can move a huge and intractable government. By opening our minds, we begin to change the world.

I love the metaphor of emotional disarmament. So long as we respond to hate and anger with hate and anger, there is no path back from the brink. Only by stepping away from our own negative feelings can we take a step toward a better world.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Appeasing the Scholar's Ghost

Kyodo News:

A well-known shrine in Kyoto held a Shinto-Buddhist rite originating in the 10th century on Friday after a 550-year hiatus, as part of its efforts to revive ancient rituals. The Kitano Tenmangu shrine, founded in 947, said it had not held the Kitano Goryoe rite since 1467, when the Onin War, an 11-year-long civil war, broke out. 

The rite was originally to appease the anger of the spirit of Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), a scholar and politician enshrined as a god at Kitano Tenmangu, as people in ancient Japan believed that natural disasters and epidemics were caused by the curse of well-known figures who were tragically killed or died with feelings of resentment. 

On Friday, shrine priests performed the rite jointly with priests from the Enryakuji temple in Otsu, Shiga Prefecture, as the Goryoe rite had been held in a syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism. In addition to praying for the repose of Michizane's spirit, the priests prayed for an end to the coronavirus pandemic and people's good health and safety, according to the shrine.

Here's a new ambition for all you scholars out there: for your ghost to be so feared that someone dreams up a ritual to appease it.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Victoria Falls in 1865, by T. Baines

The Victoria Falls, Zambesi River, sketched on the spot by T. Baines, F.R.G.S. More here.

The Strange Case of Jessica Krug

A woman named Jessica Krug, apparently history professor at GWU, just posted a long confession on Medium saying she was raised Jewish but has been pretending to be black since adolescence. The whole piece is a torrent of guilt and shame, but then she admits she started because of "trauma" and "mental health issues.":

I absolutely deserve to be cancelled. . . . No white person, no non-Black person, has the right to claim proximity to or belonging in a Black community by virtue of abuse, trauma, non-acceptance, and non-belonging in a white community. The abuse within and alienation from my birth family and society are no one’s burden but my own, and mine alone to address. Black people and Black communities have no obligation to harbor the refuse of non-Black societies. I have done this. I know it is wrong and I have done this anyway. 

I have not lived a double life. There is no parallel form of my adulthood connected to white people or a white community or an alternative white identity. I have lived this lie, fully, completely, with no exit plan or strategy. I have built only this life, a life within which I have operated with a radical sense of ethics, of right and wrong, and with rage, rooted in Black power, an ideology which every person should support, but to which I have no possible claim as my own.

Looking around the world at the shootings and the murders and the wars, I have trouble taking this seriously as a crime. So far as I can tell, Jessica Krug has made a decades-long, entirely serious attempt to live as a black person, both socially and intellectually. She clearly thinks this is very wrong, but I am not sure I get it. Consider this:

But mental health issues can never, will never, neither explain nor justify, neither condone nor excuse, that, in spite of knowing and regularly critiquing any and every non-Black person who appropriates from Black people, my false identity was crafted entirely from the fabric of Black lives. That I claimed belonging with living people and ancestors to whom and for whom my being is always a threat at best and a death sentence at worst.

I am not a culture vulture. I am a culture leech.

But don't we all craft our identities from the fabric of other people's lives? Aren't we all culture leeches? How else could we acquire culture?

In a biological sense, race does not exist. People from east and west Africa are more different from each other than Chinese are from Scots. What force race has is entirely a cultural construct. So if you construct your own race culturally, by taking from the living fabric of people of that race, then you are doing exactly what everyone else does. There is no biological basis for the notion of race; race is culture. So what underlying reality is there that Jessica Krug was betraying? That she was "really" white? What does that mean? Who decided that Jews are white? Whiteness has no biological reality. None. So if the argument is that Jessica Krug is "really" white, what could that possibly mean? If you're just saying that she could have "passed" for white if she had wanted to, well, that is equally true of many people who have been considered black from birth. Heck, Kamala Harris could consider herself Indian if she wanted to. Does that make her blackness a sham?

Suppose Jessica Krug had been adopted into a black family and raised black from birth, rather than choosing it during her struggles with trauma and madness; would that be any different?

If you can change your sex – which absolutely does exist, and has existed for a billion years, and is the most fundamental division in almost all animal species and many plant species as well – then why can't you change your race, a concept that has only been around for maybe 400 years?

When I ask people to explain this to me, they just shake their heads, as if it were so obvious that they don't know where to start. 

I simply don't see  how what Jennifer Krug did is some kind of unforgivable crime. In her confusion she sought, through her very identity, to bridge the gap between races that is one of our worst problems. She did this deceptively, but with complete sincerity. I will save my anger for the racists who think that gap is unbridgeable. Because this is what I believe: as long as we think that race is some sort of absolute division between people, more important than sex or nationality or anything else – if the very existence of white people is "is always a threat at best and a death sentence at worst" for black people – if that barrier is so impermeable that no one can ever cross it –then there is no hope, racism cannot be defeated, and in the long run we are doomed.

Links 4 September 2020

Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1970

Stainless steel animals by Australian sculptor Georgie Seccull.

Bird Photographs of the Year.

Update on the brain-machine interface being developed by Elon Musk's Neuralink.

Slate on the political results of riots against police violence.

The Sarcophagi of the Termessian Necropolis

NY Times story on re-introducing jaguars to a national park in Argentina.

Review of a new book about London's Mecklenburgh Square between the wars, when it was home to female intellectuals like HD and Dorothy Sayers.

Besides being horrible for individual mental health, the pandemic and the lockdown are playing havoc with a lot of relationships. (NY Times)

Toyota's flying car is flying.

Eight of the 15 Hurricane Laura -related deaths confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Health are attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators

Nazi plans for Norway included rebuilding cities and installing a network of maternity centers to encourage Aryan baby making.

Big utilities are building power plants that can run on either natural gas or hydrogen.

Trump Made a Promise to Save Coal. He Couldn't Keep It.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Horseradish, or, How Boring was Medieval Food?


Most accounts of the food Europeans ate before 1600 make it sound pretty dismal: bread, boiled meat, more bread, roasted meat, more bread, or maybe porridge. I have always puzzled a little over the contradictions embodied in the lives of, say, Irish kings: an amazing tradition of myth and story, poetry at the highest level, fabulous golden jewelry, but on the other hand no chimneys or windows and not much to eat but meat and bread. No wonder they cared so much about the ancestry; what else did they have? And this, maybe, is why their descendants were willing to pay so much for pepper or cinnamon, and why the Romans put so much effort into making their ghastly-sounding fish sauce.

I mean, imagine life without: vanilla, chocolate, coffee, tea, black pepper, hot peppers, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, sugar, tomatoes, peanuts, etc., etc.

So I have been wondering about the ways Europeans did have of making their food more interesting. Some are pretty obvious: salt, onions, garlic, honey, cooking in wine or beer. And butter, one of the great blessings of a dairying culture. There are also the standard European herbs, you know, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. Weirdly there is not much evidence that anybody used these in cooking –rosemary, for example, appears in old books mostly as medicine, and because the ancient Egyptians used it in preserving mummies – but how can they not have? 

Part of the problem is that most of our written sources deal with elites, and when they describe food it is usually to show how expensive it was, or how much manly hunting went into procuring it. So herbs that grow free around the doorstep would not have rated mention.

A few other thoughts about how ancient folks made their food interesting:

Mint. Grows wild all over northern Europe so was practically free, and was I suspect used to flavor many dishes of the non-rich.

Capers. These are the pickled buds of a bush that grows wild all around the Mediterranean. The history of their use is obscure, but charred specimens have been found on Iron Age archaeological sites. Today's wild plants seem to be hybrids of different ancient species, maybe crossbred with domesticated varieties, anyway such a mess that modern biologists can't sort it out, which bespeaks a long history of human use. These can stand in for a variety of pickled things that may have been used as flavoring, from raspberries to spruce needles.

Mushrooms. Especially in central and eastern Europe, gathering wild mushrooms was a traditional pastime, and I think they flavored many soups etc. But really there is next to no textual evidence until the Renaissance. 

Mustard. This Middle Eastern herb spread to northern Europe with the first farmers, and mustard sauce was one of the standard fancy foods in the north. Viking feasts often included eggs in mustard sauce, more or less what we would call deviled eggs. 

Horseradish. This just occurred to me today, which is how I ended up writing this post.  I thought it was Chinese, but it actually comes from the Balkans and Turkey and was well known in the Classical world. According to some ancient encyclopedia writer, the Delphic Oracle once told somebody that horseradish is worth more than gold. (What do you suppose his question was? Should I go to war? Should I invest all my money in ships? Should I marry the heiress? Answer: Horseradish is worth more than gold.) Anyway this set me thinking that "hot" spices were not a complete novelty to Europeans, since horseradish triggers the same heat sensitive cells on the tongue as capsaicin.

The histories I read of European agriculture, starting when I was a teenager and continuing through graduate school, were all about the major crops: wheat, barley, peas, olives, grapes. You would never guess, from that sort of book, that pioneering Neolithic farmers carried along mustard seeds as well as wheat, or that horseradish was an important commodity. Or how about the interesting fact that our pears are hybrids of varieties from western Asia and China, mingled nobody knows how? Peasants lived as closely with plants as they did with animals, and they surely had a vast lore about them. For reasons of class and so on, the parts of that lore that got written down were about medicine. But if you look hard there is a lot of evidence that the trading, raising, and breeding of plants, and experimenting with their uses, must have been widespread and deeply entrenched.

Monkeys and Parenting Across the Generations:

 Tyler Cowen:

In a new NBER paper, a group of economists, including James Heckman, have joined with researchers who study child development to analyze data from a multi-generational monkey raising experiment. It’s well known from the Harlow experiments of the 1950s that monkeys raised without their mothers don’t do so well. (It’s also from these experiments that the mantra of skin-to-skin mother-child contact comes from.) What’s distinctive in the new paper is that there are two generations of monkeys who are raised by their mothers or in nurseries and in each generation the treatment is randomly chosen. Indeed, I believe this new paper includes the children of monkeys discussed in this earlier paper which also included Heckman. The multi-generational experiment lets the researchers test whether disadvantage is transmitted down the generations and whether it can be alleviated.

The analysis indicates first that being raised by a mother results in better health and higher social status than being raised in a nursery (as measured by who wins disputes and ELO scores similar to those used in chess!). Second being raised by a mother who was raised by a mother is better than being raised by a mother who was raised in a nursery. The latter indicates that disadvantage transmits down the generations. Indeed, being raised by a mother who was raised in a nursery is just as bad as being raised in a nursery. In other words, it’s hard to ameliorate disadvantage in one generation.

The sample is small (about 100 monkeys in generation one and 60 in generation two) but because of random assignment still potentially useful.

File this under both "change is hard" and "bad things can have bad echoes down the generations."

For example I read recently, but couldn't find it again when I searched, that not only do willing African immigrants to the US do much better economically than refugees, but the effect is even more pronounced in their children.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Small Mystery of Raphael's Egyptian Blue

Egyptian Blue was a coloring agent discovered in Egypt around 2600 BC and well known in Classical times; the Romans called it caeruleum, which is where we get the English word cerulean. The Roman writer Vitruvius included a recipe for it in De architectura, Book VII, Chapter 11: 

Sand is ground with flowers of sulphur, till the mixture is as fine as flour, to which coarse filings of Cyprian copper are added, so as to make a paste when moistened with water; this is rolled into balls with the hand, and dried. The balls are then put into an earthen vessel, and that is placed in a furnace. Thus the copper and sand heating together by the intensity of the fire, impart to each other their different qualities, and thereby acquire their blue colour.

The resulting substance is called by modern chemists calcium copper silicate (CaOCuO(SiO2)4), and the whole process was recreated and scientifically described by British chemist Humphrey Davies in 1815.

But Vitruvius' book had been rediscovered in the 15th century and printed in 1486, which raises the question: did anybody try to recreate Egyptian Blue before Davies? Apparently so:

A new study of Raphael’s fresco The Triumph of Galatea, in Rome’s Villa Farnesina, has found that the Renaissance master recreated Egyptian blue for this work, and as far as we know, this work alone. Using non-invasive macro-X-ray fluorescence (MAXRF), researchers discovered to their surprise that the blue of the sea and sky were calcium copper silicate.

The Villa Farnesina was built for banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II and the richest man in Rome, by architect Baldassare Peruzzi. Construction was completed in 1512 but the frescoing of its interior began as soon as the walls were done in 1511. Chigi commissioned the greatest artists of his time for the job.

It would say it is a bit premature to say the pigment was used only in this fresco, since I doubt a very high proportion of Renaissance frescoes have yet been subjected to MAXRF. But Egyptian Blue was certainly not being used in the 1700s when encyclopedic books describing all of Europe's artisanal techniques were put together.

Anyway this is cool because we have this idea about the "Renaissance man" who was equally versed in art, science, and philosophy, but mostly that is a hoax. It seems, however, that Raphael's shop not only produced some of history's most wonderful paintings, but included somebody who was both a classicist and a cutting-edge chemist. (Via The History Blog)