Saturday, September 30, 2017

Gold of Panama

The Indians of Panama and the adjacent parts of Colombia and Costa Rica made exquisite gold jewelry and other ornaments using the lost wax process. This is described by the Met as a Bat-Nosed Figure Pendant, Parita Culture, 12th–14th century CE.

Double Eagle Pendant, Veraguas Culture, 11th-16th century.

Shaman from the Diquís Culture of Costa Rica, 13th Century CE.

Figure Pendant of a type known as "Hefe," 10th–16th century, Tairona Culture, northwest Colombia.

Gold Bell Pendant Featuring Two Saurian Deities, Costa Rican/Panamanian Border Area, 500 to 1550 CE.

Coclé region, Panama, Disk Pectoral with Sun Deity, 300–1550

Frog Pendant, Chiriquí Culture, Costa Rica, 11th-16th century.

Emerald and gold Jaguar pendant, Sitio Conte, Panama, ca. 700-900 CE.

Gold Human figure plaque, Sitio Conte, Panama, ca. 700-900 CE

And one more from Sitio Conte, a two-headed bat.

Bat-Nosed Figure Pendant, Diquís Culture, 13th–16th century

Horseshoe crab effigy, Coclé region 450–1520 CE

Jaguar from Costa Rica.

And a bat from an unknown site in Colombia.

How Dinosaurs Lost their Teeth

For me the big obstacle to imaging birds as dinosaurs has always been teeth: dinosaurs had them, birds don't. But this is another part of paleontology that is more complex than the simple version, because most early birds had teeth and some non-bird dinosaurs had beaks. And now there is some good new science about how the transition took place:
Using fossils and a large comparative analysis of modern animals, Dr. Balanoff and a team of evolutionary biologists, led by Shuo Wang from the Capital Normal University in Beijing, found that the loss of teeth and the emergence of beaks are connected processes in theropods. As the beak grew across the dinosaur’s face, it also inhibited the growth of teeth, the team suggested. On an evolutionary scale this transition happened until theropods developed mouths that resembled the bird beaks seen today.

In earlier research, Dr. Wang’s team discovered an emu-like theropod called Limusaurus that began life as a baby with teeth, but lost them as it grew older and morphed into an adult with a beak. [above]

For their most recent paper, he and his colleagues examined more dinosaur jaw fossils and found two other theropods that underwent transitions similar to Limusaurus: an early Cretaceous bird called Sapeornis, which resembled modern birds, and a small caenagnathid oviraptorosaur, which resembled a velociraptor but with a beak.

“This demonstrates an evolutionary process of the beak for the first time,” said Dr. Wang.
All three of these dinosaurs had beaks with vestigial tooth sockets, as in the Sapeornis jaw above.

When paleontologists look closely at any change in the fossil record that seems like a dramatic break, they find lots of intermediate cases and strange branchings and evidence that the change took place in different ways in different groups and so on: in other words, a disorderly mess. Evolution is like that. Birds once seemed different from dinosaurs in both having feathers and having beaks. Now we know that lots of dinosaurs had feathers, including most if not all theropods, and from fossils in amber and mudstone and we have learned a lot about how many different sorts of feathers they had and begun to understand how they evolved. We are just in the early stages of understanding beaks, but already enough is known to show that they evolved in several different lineages of dinosaurs.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Neoliberalism and the Jones Act

Let's talk about the Jones Act. This is the law, passed in 1920, that requires cargoes shipped between US ports to be carried on US-built, US-owned ships with US crews. Many other nations have laws limiting trade by foreign vessels so there is nothing strange about it. It has long been somewhat controversial in the US because some of the cost differences sound extreme: it costs 4 to 5 times as much to build a cargo ship in the US as in Korea or China, and wages for crews are as much as five times higher than on international vessels. As a result, it is more expensive to ship goods between US ports. Shipping between coastal ports on the mainland has all but disappeared, since railroads are cheaper and trucks more convenient. The main markets within which Jones Act vessels operate are 1) river traffic in bulk goods like grain and gravel, 2) carrying crude oil from Alaska to the lower 48, and 3) carrying goods of all sorts from the mainland to Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Since Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria, various news outlets have been calling for the law to be repealed. This includes liberal bastions like Vox: "Protectionism and exploitation at its worst. . . . a century-old man-made disaster" and conservative organs like Forbes: "this pernicious and archaic protectionist law." HuffPost mocked Trump for hesitating over granting the waiver that devastated areas usually get after natural disasters, because of pushback from the shipping industry; they called this "considering an industry’s profits over aid to 3.5 million Americans facing a humanitarian crisis."

The journalistic elite seems united in its distaste for the law; I haven't seen a single piece in any of the news source I follow defending the law, and I follow everything from Mother Jones to Reason. Which makes it a perfect, paradigmatic case where neoliberal demands for efficiency conflict with the desires of working class Americans to keep their well-paid jobs.

I've been trying to track down some reliable numbers on the effects of the Jones Act, but this is harder than you might think. For one thing serious analyses have found it hard to document extreme claims of price discrepancy in shipping or damage to the Puerto Rican economy. This GAO study found, first, that most of the ships in Puerto Rico's harbors are foreign; after all the Jones Act only applies to cargoes coming from the rest of the US, and Puerto Rico is just as free as the rest of us to trade directly with China, or with all the numerous Caribbean and Latin countries that are closer than Florida. Nor did they find it easy to document a big impact on shipping costs even directly from the mainland US:
Freight rates are set based on a host of supply and demand factors in the market, some of which are affected directly or indirectly by Jones Act requirements. However, because so many other factors besides the Jones Act affect rates, it is difficult to isolate the exact extent to which freight rates between the United States and Puerto Rico are affected by the Jones Act.
I don't doubt that there is some impact; after all, foreign firms have driven US shippers out of business everywhere they can compete. But I cannot find any serious backing for those "shipping costs are twice as high" statements that are all over the news.

Then there is the issue of American jobs. Liberal news outlets that attack the Jones Act conveniently ignore this part of the equation by focusing on the ship owners, e.g., Vox complains that the law "enriches a small number of American shipowners." The only numbers I can find on the jobs involved come from the industry, so they are of course suspect, but here is one:
In 2006, an estimated 73,787 jobs were directly attributable to the Jones Act fleet.
Let's assume that the industry doubled the number of jobs; what the heck, the argument is the same anyway. It pits some number of jobs – 37,000 or 74,000 or whatever – many of them the kind of union, blue-collar but well-paid jobs we have lost so many of, against a modest gain in efficiency for the rest of us. What benefit to the nation as a whole is worth throwing 37,000 people out of work?

In the case of Puerto Rico there is the additional argument that Puerto Rico is poor. So the subsidy to US workers and shippers is extracted from people who are already worse off than the American average. This is the argument made by many liberals, who thereby take the side of comparatively poor, non-white people against rich white ship-owners. Ignoring the people who work on the ships, who are otherwise employed by the shipping companies.

I don't have an answer here. I was just struck that after a whole year of liberals talking about needing to change their economic thinking and stand up for the working class, a whole year of complaining that Hillary was too much of a neoliberal not enough on the side of the workers, when a real issue comes up the entire liberal intelligentsia leaps to the side of free markets and free trade, actual workers be damned. Maybe that's right. But it shows that whatever they say about jobs and helping workers, the liberal elite has been captured by the logic of capitalism just as surely as the conservative elite. We all believe that competition leads to efficiency, and efficiency benefits everyone; indeed most of us would be hard placed even to describe what another sort of logic might be.

Giovanni Battista Lombardi, Nymph


Suicide in Happy Places

Every once in a while you will see an article that argues, "the Nordic countries aren't so great, they have high suicide rates." But suicide rates do not correlate very well with whether a society is a happy or well run one. In fact one bunch of sociologists found that the happier the place, the higher the suicide rate:
A little-noted puzzle is that many of [the happiest] places have unusually high rates of suicide. While this fact has been remarked on occasionally for individual nations, especially for the case of Denmark, it has usually been attributed in an anecdotal way to idiosyncratic features of the location in question (eg the dark winters in Scandinavia), definitional variations in the measurement of well-being and suicide, and differences in culture and social attitudes regarding happiness and taking one’s life. Most scholars have not thought of the anecdotal observation as a systematic relationship that might be robust to replication or investigation…this paper attempts to document the existence of a happiness-suicide paradox: happier areas have a higher percentage of suicides.
Suicide rates are a puzzle. New York and New Jersey have lower suicide rates than most other US states, Hawaii one of the highest rates. In the United States the suicide rate for whites is much higher than the suicide rate among blacks.

It is hard to show that suicide correlates well with anything other than a society's acceptance of it; Japan, which has probably romanticized suicide more than any other nation, has a famously high rate. The only other correlation that really stands up to scrutiny is a connection with altitude; in the US, high-elevation counties have significantly higher suicide rates than others. Nobody knows why.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Dragon and Waves


Meanwhile, in the Virgin Islands

The Virgin Islands have been devastated by two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks: both hospitals have been so badly damaged they will have to be torn down and rebuilt, ditto for most of the schools; there is no electricity and not even a guess as to when it will be restored; and most of the islands' supplies usually reach them from Puerto Rico, where the ports are wrecked and they don't have enough food for themselves. And then this:
On St. Croix, one of the few working cell towers went down after someone stole the generator powering it.
Pondering that trashed solar farm above, it occurred to me that I had never considered this particular problem: solar might seem like the perfect power source for a Caribbean island, until the hurricanes show up.

Will Releasing Convicts from Prison Increase Crime?

The Open Philanthropy Project has long been interested in the effects of America's mass incarceration. Now that the tide seems to be turning in their favor, they decided to commission a major study of whether reducing the prison population might lead to a major increase in crime. The study was carried out by David Roodman. He calls his project a "mass replication" of the best available studies on prison and crime, meaning that he went very thoroughly back through the data used in these studies, checked all their math, and asked the original investigators pressing questions about decisions they made. (Why did you look at this variable rather than that one? Why did you use this data set rather than some other?)

Alex Tabarrok is one of the study authors that Roodman put through this process, and Roodman ended up concluding the opposite of what Tabarrok's paper argued. But Tabarrok was nonetheless very impressed by Roodman's diligence:
My paper on Three Strikes with Eric Helland was one of the papers that Roodman replicated. (Fortunately, it did replicate with the exception of one error in a table.) I can vouch that Roodman gave us tougher scrutiny than did the peer reviewers.

Not surprisingly, I don’t agree with all of Roodman’s conclusions but rather than pushing back I think it more important to underline how impressive the replication project is. There are many review papers in economics but a replication project of this magnitude is nearly unprecedented. In our paper on the National Science Foundation, Tyler Cowen and I advised the NSF to put more efforts into replication. We wrote:

The NSF could support replication studies on a significant scale. A significant fraction of economic research does not easily replicate…Replication and reproducibility studies are true public goods that are not rewarded highly by most top journals or by the tenure process at research universities.

Roodman and OPP have demonstrated the value of replication on a large scale.
And what did Roodman find?
I estimate, that at typical policy margins in the United States today, decarceration has zero net impact on crime. That estimate is uncertain, but at least as much evidence suggests that decarceration reduces crime as increases it. The crux of the matter is that tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, “tough-on-crime” initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run. Empirical social science research—or at least non-experimental social science research—should not be taken at face value. Among three dozen studies I reviewed, I obtained or reconstructed the data and code for eight. Replication and reanalysis revealed significant methodological concerns in seven and led to major reinterpretations of four.
Note one key detail about what Roodman says above: "at typical policy margins." He is not saying that freeing all prisoners would have no significant effect on crime, only that the kind of sentencing reform efforts now under way have no significant effect. So it might be that if we ratcheted the prison population down to its size in 1980, when it was less than half what it is now, something bad might happen. But the sort of 5 to 20 percent reductions states like Georgia are seeking do not seem to lead to crime waves.

I'm not going to tell you that Roodman is right; these are very hard problems, and studies have come to varying conclusions. But as I have said before in similar cases, when researchers can't even agree on the direction of an effect, some finding it negative and some positive, it is not likely to be very big. Cutting our prison population in the way reformers are actually seeking would likely not lead to major crime problems, and it might have good effects in the black and Hispanic communities from which so many prisoners come.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

High Five

Paying Libya's Militias to Cut Off Migrant Flows

Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of migrants have passed through Libya on their way to Italy and the rest of Europe. Many were helped along the way by the armed militias that dominate big swathes of Libyan territory. The groups have been happy to help human smugglers in return for cash. But now the Italians have found a way to change the equation:
The seas off western Libya have been quiet since late July. Before that, they swarmed with smugglers’ boats overfilled with migrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans heading for Europe. From 23,000 migrants per month, the flow of arrivals has slowed to a trickle.

The migrants are accumulating on Libya’s coast and many are incarcerated in opaque circumstances. Their movement has been stymied by militias, who have turned on the northbound flow of migrants they once profited from. Deep in the southern desert, emergent militia groups evince the goal of closing the border with Niger and Chad to migrants moving north — attempting to patrol areas that none of Libya’s three rival governments ever secured.

Motivating the Libyan militias’ newfound zeal for blocking migrant movement is a new policy spearheaded by the Italian government and embraced by the European Union. The approach relies on payment to militias willing to act as migrant deterrent forces. Italian government representatives use intermediaries such as mayors and other local leaders to negotiate terms of the agreements with the armed groups. They also build local support in the targeted areas by distributing humanitarian aid. . . .

The pay-them-to-stop scheme has introduced a novel way for amoral, uncontrolled armed groups to carry on extracting rents from the still-raging migrant crisis. Previously, migrants and smugglers paid militias a tax to depart for Europe. Now, the E.U. — coordinated by Italy — in effect pays a tax to the same groups to keep the migrants in place.
A clever scheme, I guess. But this has to be terrible for Libya's future. Half the reason migrants pass through Libya rather than Algeria is that Algeria has a government up to the job of stopping them. This may slow the flow of migrants in the short term, but at the price of putting off that day when Libya has a stable state for a long, long time.

Asperger's and Empathy

Shanu Athiparambath takes issue with the assertion that people on the autism spectrum seem strange and rude because they lack empathy:
Aspies have a blunt style of speech, because they mean well. If you’re nearly incapable of malice, it’s hard to imagine others may read malice into your remarks. It’s introspection which fails Aspies. Aspies excel at separating the idea and the person. Neurotypicals conflate ideological disagreement with personal conflict. So they find it exhausting when Aspies go too far in arguing their case. It is, again, lack of introspection that fails neurotypicals. The failure to understand each other is mutual. It’s more exhausting for Aspies to interpret indirect demands and defend ourselves against implicit accusations. Neurotypicals are unable to put themselves in our shoes and understand that disagreement isn’t personal. Does this mean neurotypicals have low cognitive empathy? They’re generally unable to be nice despite disagreements. Does this mean they have low affective empathy? Is it we who lack empathy?

Neurotypicals always think it’s about them. Tell them social media is not good for children, and they will say, “Don’t tell me how to raise my child.” Tell them intelligence is heritable, and they assume you just called them stupid. Tell them you disagree, and they think you just don’t like them. Tell them the gender salary gap is not because of patriarchy, and they will remove you from their Facebook friend list. Why do neurotypicals make a torture rack for themselves, and us, with their poor self-esteem? And they still think we don’t have empathy. . . .

It’s not rude to assume others can handle the truth. It’s not necessarily polite to modulate your tone, or give a compliment to soften the blow of what is to come after. Quite the contrary, it’s disrespectful to assume all people are so lacking in strength.
I once said to a woman I had just met, "I love those shoes, it's such a shame they went out of style." One of my friends had to point out to me later that this might have been construed as an insult. But I meant every word!

Electricity in Puerto Rico

Before and after Hurricane Maria.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Not Talking about Population Growth

Environmental reporter David Roberts wrote an interesting essay for Vox about why he never writes about population growth. This might seem strange at first, since every environmental problem is partly caused by population growth. But, says Roberts, the optics of focusing on population are just too terrible. It makes the writer seem like a hater of humanity, and it makes him or her an ally of racists, anti-immigrant activists, and other deplorables:
I don’t doubt that it’s possible to be concerned about the environmental stresses population brings without any racism or xenophobia — I’ve met many people who fit that description, and there were well-meaning (if quite mistaken) population-focused groups in the ’70s and ’80s — but in terms of public discussion and advocacy, anyone explicitly expressing that concern starts out behind the eight ball. The mere mention of “population” raises all sorts of ugly historical associations.
Plus, says Roberts, we already know the best ways to fight population growth, and they can pursued without talking about population growth at all:
Luckily, we know the answer. It is family planning that enables women to have only children they want and choose, and education of girls, giving them access to income opportunities outside the home. We know that women, given the resources and the choice, will opt for smaller families.
And the best way to advocate for these things is to talk about justice and freedom, not population growth. Once you introduce population growth into the conversation about, say, Nigeria, then Nigerians will wonder why you hate Nigerians so much that you want to reduce their numbers.

I posted this here because I have a strong sense that talking about an issue is not always the best way to make progress, and that a lot of the stuff we fight about would be better just swept under the rug.

Catastrophe vs. Ingenuity in the Cacao Groves

In the 1970s, Costa Rica was the world's leading producer of cacao. Then a fungus known as frosty rot spread like wildfire through the groves, and by 1983 production had fallen 96 percent. In the short term production shifted to west Africa, which still dominates the world in this area. But the danger has always been hanging out there that the fungus might spread – or if not frosty rot, then one of the other fungi or viruses that bedevil cacao – and chocolate would suddenly become a rare luxury good. I remember reading an apocalyptic magazine story about this a decade or so ago.

The reason cacao and our other crops are so vulnerable to disease is that we tend to grow a few high-yielding varieties that are genetically identical – in the case of cacao most trees in the world are clones of a few high-yielding trees selected in the 1940s, spread by cuttings. Fortunately for us there are still wild cacao trees and also many surviving older varieties that can be used to breed new trees. Which is what they are doing at Costa Rica's Cacao Genetic Improvement Program, which raises 1,235 different types of cacao tree:
In the early 1980s, Dr. Phillips-Mora worked to identify the most naturally tolerant and productive cacao trees, then painstakingly hybridized the candidates to create novel varieties.

Breeding hybrid cacao clones is a lengthy process, and experts worldwide have largely failed in this endeavor. But in 2006, Dr. Phillips-Mora released his first batch of hybrid cacao varieties.

In terms of disease resistance and yield, the differences were astonishing. Dr. Phillips-Mora’s six hybrids produce on average about three times more cacao than standard varieties; under ideal conditions, the most prolific hybrids can produce six times more cacao.

After an 11-year trial, a hybrid called C.A.T.I.E.-R6 experienced a 5 percent frosty pod rot infection rate, compared to 75 percent infection for a control variety.
Not only that, but the chocolate tastes good. So while there is always a danger that a fast-spreading disease might devastate one of our major global crops, we are also very clever about breeding or engineering resistant strains.

Denise Kwong

Austrian photographer Denise Kwong is one of the winners in this year's EyeEm Photography Awards for her pictures of Hong Kong.

What Donald Trump is Doing

David Brooks:
It has to be admitted that Donald Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do.

He was not elected to be a legislative president. He never showed any real interest in policy during the campaign. He was elected to be a cultural president. He was elected to shred the dominant American culture and to give voice to those who felt voiceless in that culture. He’s doing that every day.

What’s troubling to me is that those who are the targets of his assaults seem to have no clue about what is going on. When they feel the most righteous, like this past weekend, they are actually losing and in the most peril. . . .

Trump is not good at much, but he is wickedly good at sticking his thumb in the eye of the educated elites. He doesn’t have to build a new culture, or even attract a majority. He just has to tear down the old one.

That’s exactly what he’s doing. Donald Trump came into a segmenting culture and he is further tearing apart every fissure. He has a nose for every wound in the body politic and day after day he sticks a red-hot poker in one wound or another and rips it open.

Day by day Trump is turning us into a nation of different planets. Each planet feels more righteous about itself and is more isolated from and offended by the other planets.

The members of the educated class saw this past weekend’s N.F.L. fracas as a fight over racism. They felt mobilized and unified in that fight and full of righteous energy. Members of the working class saw the fracas as a fight about American identity. They saw Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin try to dissuade Alejandro Villanueva, a three-time combat veteran, from celebrating the flag he risked his life for. Members of this class also felt mobilized, unified and full of righteous energy.
Scanning my Facebook feed last night it struck me that most liberals don't even realize that this fight over the national anthem is one they can't win. Trump picked this ground to fight on because he knows it is a winning issue for him. So long as Trump stands for AMERICA and liberals seem to be against it, he wins.

Trump wants this culture war. This is the battle he is ready for, and that he thinks he can win. As Bannon put it, Trump wants liberals to talk about race while he talks nationalism. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but scoundrel Trump knows a good refuge when he sees one.

If liberals want to hold power in this country, they need to change the subject back to issues that are winners for them: health care, infrastructure, not cutting taxes on the rich. And how about this one: treating everyone with respect. Because when we start calling football fans who booed the protesters racists or hypocrites, we descend into the wrestling ring with Trump. We surrender the moral high ground and lose the advantage of being polite grown-ups battling an offensive bully.

Whether you like it or not, Trump is with the majority on this, and nobody ever wins elections by calling the majority names.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Volcano Llaima, Chile

Photo by Ismael Cañete, 2008.

Summing up the Mood

I was reading a not terribly interesting essay about art and politics, when I stumbled across this:
The political situation is dire. Nothing really feels important right now unless it somehow connects to that situation.
Here, I thought, is the perfect statement of why liberals in particular can't stop repeating the same frantic screeds about Trump over and over again.

Hey, I'm interested in politics; I read about it every day, and write about it four or five times a week. But I have never thought that it is the most important thing, and I certainly don't think the election of Trump is the most important thing to happen lately. Trump is a symptom of our problems, not in himself a cause of anything. (Unless he starts a nuclear war, but I'm still betting he won't.)

We have much bigger problems than Trump: economic problems, drug problems; bitter social divisions, rusting bridges and crumbling roads, millions of people suffering from crippling anxiety and depression; large sections of our society feel completely divorced from the nation as a whole. We also have vast energy and creativity: technical miracles on every hand, astonishing science, a madly various effervescence of art and music, thriving subcultures of a thousand sorts, ten thousand schemes for making the world better. All of this matters more than Trump.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Poison Book

Back in 2008, this strange object was sold to a private collector by German auction house Hermann Historica. It was billed as a "poison cabinet," since most of the ingredients listed on the tiny drawers are poisonous. This created quite a stir at the time, and many charges that it was an obvious fake.

But now the curators at the Met have gotten a good look at it, and they say it may be just what it seems: a small pharmacopoeia hidden in a hollowed-out 16th-century book. They did not suspect a recent fake. They suggest that rather than being a poisoner's cabinet this might just be a medicine chest, since all of the plants listed on the eleven small drawers were used medicinally.

But let's take a closer look at these eleven plants:

Hyocyamus niger, black henbane, a powerful hallucinogen often said to have been part of witches' salves, and a dangerous poison.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy. This is not much of a poison, since you have to take a ton to kill yourself with it, but it has other sinister associations. Incidentally its most important medicinal use was in stopping diarrhea, including the fatal kind; it is still one of the best drugs for that purpose.

Aconitum napellus, monkshood, which is another deadly poison.

Cicuta virosa, cowbane or northern water hemlock, possibly the most dangerous poison on the list; one bite of the root can kill you.

Bryonia alba, white bryony or false mandrake, which is poisonous but you have to eat forty berries to get a fatal dose.

Datura stramonium, jimsonweed, which is a hallucinogen, deliriant, and poison, and also a medicine used to treat severe asthma among other things. People still regularly die of this, since the fatal does is less than twice what you need to get strong hallucinations but bored teenagers can't resist the allure of escape.

Valeriana officinalis, valerian, a medicinal herb widely used to treat anxiety and insomnia but not poisonous so far as I know.

Daphne mezereum, alias February daphne or mezereon, is poisonous, especially the berries, but not generally fatal.

Ricinus communis, castor bean, the source of castor oil and ricin. Castor oil was a very common medicine in old Europe and plenty of people still take it. Eating the beans can kill you, but you have to eat quite a few and they taste awful; also, death takes 3 to 5 days. But ricin can be extracted and concentrated into a very dangerous poison.

Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus or naked lady, widely used in medicine (still) despite its toxicity; for example it is a common treatment for gout. Very much a deadly poison.

Atropa belladonna, belladonna or deadly nightshade. One of the most famous European herbs, used for cosmetics and medicine but a deadly poison. It is a strong deliriant and contains scopalamine, one of the drugs used to induce "twilight sleep".

This is not a normal pharmacy such an an herbal doctor might carry along on a house call. It is missing many common medicinal herbs  – e.g., heal-all, comfrey, licorice – that are not dangerous and would be part of any real herbal doctor's kit.

On the other hand it would not be much good for a real assassin. All of the poisons listed on these drawers taste terrible; it was precisely to protect us from these compounds that we mammals evolved our distaste for bitter foods. I have been trying for years to find out if it was possible to hide a fatal dose of any of the well-known European plant poisons in food, and I have yet to get good answers. But so far as I know this would be very difficult. (If there really were poison tasters, their job would have been, not to ingest the poison and die, but to recognize the presence of bitter alkaloids in the food.) The only poison on this list that I know can be used effectively in that way is ricin, but you must first go through an elaborate process to extract and concentrate the deadly molecule. (The process is said to be much like extracting cyanide from almonds.) Plus there is the poppy, which is not a poison, and the valerian, which is not dangerous at all but has a lot of literary and royal associations.

My guess is that this object is a product of nineteenth-century literary fantasy, like those vampire hunter's kits.

The Might-Have-Beens

The Historian’s function is to discern… alternatives …If we are to study history as a living subject, not merely as a coloured pageant, or an antiquarian chronicle, or a dogmatic scheme, we must not indeed lose ourselves in barren speculations, but we must leave some room for imagination. History is not merely what happened. It is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens.

— Hugh Trevor Roper

Pretty Much What I Expected

I think one thing we were all expecting from a Trump administration is exactly what we are getting now: despite nuclear war fears and hurricanes and earthquakes and health care and the budget, the number one item on all the news sites is the Twitter fight between Trump and LeBron James.

James: Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!

This particular fight is touchy because of the racial structure of the NBA and NFL, in which mostly white owners and fans depend on the heroics of mostly black athletes.  This is why the NFL ownership has been so careful not to say anything substantive about Star Spangled Banner protests and the like, and why the NBA bounced a white owner for making racist comments to a hot mic a few years ago: the last thing they want is a racial blow-up. And here comes Trump with his bull in a China shop routine.

Look for NBA owners to spend the next few weeks on vacation, or hiding under their desks.

The Golden Altar of Sahl Church, Denmark

This medieval golden altar has recently been removed from Sahl Church in northwestern Denmark for study and restoration.

Sahl Church was built around 1150, a very solid Romanesque construction much like those of contemporary Germany.

The age of the altar is not precisely known; likely late medieval. It is made of gold leaf pressed over wood. These were once common in Denmark but most were destroyed during the Reformation.

The altar has been restored multiple times, most recently in the 1930s; by then most of the crystals had fallen off, and they were replaced.

Details. The History Blog has a 19 mb photograph if you really want a close look.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Guernsey Medieval Porpoise Burial

Archaeologists working at a 14th-century hermitage on the island of Guernsey were startled to find a porpoise skeleton in a feature that looked at first like a human grave.

They told reporters that they had never seen anything like it, but that's just because they're not sufficiently up on the weird side notes of British archaeology.

Porpoise bones have been found buried in several British sites dating to between the Neolithic and the late Middle Ages. The most famous example is on St. Ninian's Isle in the Shetlands, where a porpoise jaw was found in the so-called St. Ninian's Treasure unearthed in 1958; some of the silver pieces from this treasure are above.

Dolphins and porpoises are surrounded by folklore all around Europe and were especially associated with luck. A common superstition held that to harm a porpoise who followed a ship would bring luck of the worst kind; but the belief has also been recorded that a porpoises head hung from the mast would bring good luck. Porpoise blood and bones were used in medicinal and magical concoctions across Europe and especially among the Vikings, who held that porpoise blood might give great wisdom. Coastal people sometimes treated beached whales, including porpoises, as a sort of manna from heaven, sent directly by the sea gods to hungry people.

On several Pictish Symbol stones is carved a beast whose interpretation is much disputed. But some think it represents a beaked whale.

The people of Guernsey and the Shetlands were seafaring folk, so porpoises were part of their lives, including their spiritual lives. I for one don't find a buried porpoise surprising in the least.

Morning Glories