Friday, November 30, 2018

St. Anne's Church, Annaberg-Buchholz

St. Anne's Church in Annaberg-Buchholz, Saxony, Germany, was built for miners, dedicated to their patron saint, and paid for with the silver they dug from the ground. The church eventually gave its name both to the town and to the mountain against which it was built.

In 1496, an extraordinary vein of silver was discovered on the lands of the Duke of Saxony. To staff the mines he built a whole new town, laid out by the humanist Ulrich Rülein von Calw. Rülein was a real Renaissance man; not only did he live in the actual Renaissance, he was a mathematician, surveyor, urban planner, mining engineer, Latin stylist, astrologer, and physician. Rülein's plan set aside the most prominent site in the town for a large church.

The patron, Duke George the Bearded, by Lucas Caranch the Elder. Besides paying for the church the Duke donated a large collection of relics, some associated with St. Anne, to put the church on the medieval map.

The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1499 and it was completed by 1525. Its construction seems to be remarkably well documented; German wikipedia lists all the master builders who directed the works and notes that a temporary wooden church was built on the same site for the miners to worship in until the stone version was habitable.

The church is generally said, or at any rate by all seven of the web sites I have checked, to straddle the late Gothic and the early Renaissance, or indeed to be "a monument of the late Gothic/early Renaissance transition."

The ceiling that is its crowning glory, and the only part you are likely to see on Tumblr, was built by Jacob Haylmann in the 1510s. The wonderful colors are the result of a recent restoration, which involved scraping off six layers of paint to get down to the sixteenth-century colors so that they could be recreated.

The stark main entrance.

But if that isn't to your taste, the church also has another portal known as "the Beautiful Door," originally installed in a Franciscan friary and moved to St. Anne's when Saxony converted to Protestantism and the monasteries were closed.

The church has multiple altars; this one of painted wood dates to around 1522.

More famous is the Miners' Altar, paid for by their guild in 1521. The paintings mostly show relatively realistic depictions of sixteenth-century mining. This is the central panel, showing the mines.

The lower panel, showing the washing of the ore, work often done by women.

Smelting ore.

One of the few spiritual touches is this angel, who is said to have guided miner Daniel Knappe to this ore bank. It appeared to him in a dream and told him to search out a certain great tree to find a great treasure. He found the tree and climbed into the branches, only to be confronted by the same angel who told him to climb down and "search the roots." He had only dug a short way when he stumbled on the silver vein.

The altar is a remarkable document, and the church is a fascinating link to the world of the mining folk, who labored in horribly dangerous conditions to provide Europe's metals.

Shark Embryo

Photo by Rory Cooper, Kyle Martin and Amin Garbout of a shark embryo with developing teeth and "denticules," the tooth-like things on their skin. Besides looking awesome this image was part of a study that showed the
denticles distribute themselves in a ‘Turing-like pattern’, a process first proposed by British mathematician Alan Turing in 1952. The pattern is known to drive the development of feathers in birds, but this discovery hints at a common evolutionary origin much farther down the tree of life, up to 450 million years ago.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Freedom to be Bad at Things

Tim Wu:
I’m a little surprised by how many people tell me they have no hobbies. It may seem a small thing, but — at the risk of sounding grandiose — I see it as a sign of a civilization in decline. The idea of leisure, after all, is a hard-won achievement; it presupposes that we have overcome the exigencies of brute survival. Yet here in the United States, the wealthiest country in history, we seem to have forgotten the importance of doing things solely because we enjoy them.

Yes, I know: We are all so very busy. Between work and family and social obligations, where are we supposed to find the time?

But there’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time. Our “hobbies,” if that’s even the word for them anymore, have become too serious, too demanding, too much an occasion to become anxious about whether you are really the person you claim to be.

Lost here is the gentle pursuit of a modest competence, the doing of something just because you enjoy it, not because you are good at it. Hobbies, let me remind you, are supposed to be something different from work. But alien values like “the pursuit of excellence” have crept into and corrupted what was once the realm of leisure, leaving little room for the true amateur. . . .

In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment. 
This reminded me of a bit I remember from a Renaissance book of manners, I think Castigleone's The Courtier. The author said that while it is fine to write poetry for yourself, you must keep it secret until some of your most trusted friends have seen it and agreed that it would not hurt your reputation if it became public.

So I would say that while our own high expectations are one reason why we don't pursue things we are bad at, the fear of being mocked by others is also a factor.

The Double Helix Staircase

Copper double spiral staircase by the Danish architecture firm CEBRA, installed in their new wing of the Experimentarium science museum in Copenhagen. This addition has been nominated for several of this year's big architecture awards.

Extremely impressive. Of course it's copper, so it will tarnish; did they maybe also design a robotic system to clean the thing?

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

In New Jersey, Legalizing Pot and Expunging Past Convictions

New Jersey's new governor made marijuana legalization a key plank in his election platform, and the legislature has been working on a bill ever since. It has been tied up by details of taxation and the like, and by a push by black legislators to tie legalization to a bill expunging past convictions for drug possession:
Supporters of the proposal in New Jersey to expunge criminal records say strict drug laws in the state have long unfairly targeted minorities: A black New Jersey resident is three times more likely to be arrested on marijuana-related offenses than a white resident, a recent study found.

As Trenton begins to debate a marijuana bill approved on Monday by a joint legislative committee, creating an efficient process for tossing out past convictions has become central to gaining support from lawmakers who represent predominantly African-American communities. . . .

The bill that would make recreational marijuana legal also would pave the way for those with past convictions for small amounts of marijuana to have their records wiped clean. But some lawmakers want to go much further.

Mr. Holley and Senator Sandra B. Cunningham, a Democrat from Jersey City, are backing a plan aimed at clearing more serious drug convictions, including low-level sales of drugs other than marijuana, such as cocaine and heroin. Their proposal would also erase some other nonviolent convictions.
Holley and Cunningham imagine a process whereby people who have been out of trouble for a decade can get old drug-related convictions erased from their record, but they would have to apply and be approved.

Erasing past convictions for something now legal seems reasonable to me, but I am cautious about broader expungement. Studies have shown that if employers can't get data on past legal trouble they become more racist, because they assume that black people are more likely to be criminals and people without records have no way to prove it.

More broadly this gets at the fundamental question of justice: can people reform? It seems to me that many sorts of convictions ought to be ignored after people have been clean for ten years, but a big faction in our country thinks that people who have done bad things can never be trusted.

David Alvarez

David Alvarez is a prizewinning Mexican illustrator; most of these are from a series called I Dreamed I was the Night.

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Staffordshire Helmet

The Staffordshire Hoard contained about 4,000 pieces. After careful examination the experts think 1,500 of them came from a single object: a magnificent helmet. The fragments were too fragile to be reassembled, so the conservators created a close-as-they-could-get-to-exact replica of each piece and then tried to fit those pieces together. This is the result.

This was fancier and had more gold than the Sutton Hoo helmet, which probably belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia, so it likely also belonged to a king. Which gets me back to the weirdness of the Staffordshire Hoard; why was all this magnificent stuff hacked to pieces, then buried and lost? Quite likely we are looking at what was looted from a whole royal army; how could you lose that?

Ah, well, it was a good thing for us anyway that this great treasure was forgotten, so that we can see it today.

More at The History Blog.

What do Adjectives Mean?

The results of a YouGov poll in which respondents attached numerical values to terms of abuse and praise.

Is the Opioid Epidemic Finally Cresting?

After a decade of going up by leaps and bounds, the death rate in the US from opioids seems to have stabilized and may even have declined slightly this year. This is preliminary data and we won't have the real results for months, but it is certainly encouraging. The Times sent a reporter to Dayton, Ohio, where opioid deaths are down 50% from last year, to investigate what might behind it. For one thing, the hardest-hit states have gotten serious about treatment:
Mayor Nan Whaley thinks nothing has had as big an impact on overdose deaths as Gov. John Kasich’s decision to expand Medicaid in 2015, a move that gave nearly 700,000 low-income adults access to free addiction and mental health treatment.

In Dayton, that’s drawn more than a dozen new treatment providers in the last year alone, including residential programs and outpatient clinics that dispense methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, the three medications approved by the F.D.A. to treat opioid addiction.

“It’s the basis — the basis — for everything we’ve built regarding treatment,” Ms. Whaley said in an interview at City Hall. “If you’re a state that does not have Medicaid expansion, you can’t build a system for addressing this disease.”
Naloxone and the knowledge of how to administer it have also been widely pushed, which has saved quite a few lives, and the dangerous drug Carfentanil has largely disappeared from the city, probably because it was so dangerous that even dealers and addicts are now shunning it. Pressure on doctors to write fewer opioid prescriptions may also be a factor.

Good economic times may also be helping; the epidemic took off as a side-effect of hopeless unemployment in the wake of the financial crisis, and that has changed in many places.

The opioid boom may also have been a sort of fad that took off as fads often do, an "everybody's doing it so maybe I'll give it a try" sort of thing, and maybe the number of deaths and the amount of depressing news coverage have dampened the allure.

Not that America's drug problems are anything close to ending. In places where heroin use is down, meth use is up, a real devil's bargain, and even if opioid abuse goes back down to the level of ten years ago that would still be a terrible waste of life. The sad fact is that living just hurts for millions of people, and what to do about that I have no idea.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park

Today's place to daydream about is Italy's Cilento and Vallo di Diano National Park, home to thousands of acres of lovely hill country and two world-class archaeological sites, Paestum and Velia.

This is the sort of place where you can hike through oak-chestnut forests inhabited by deer, boar, and wolves,

along a river home to Italy's "most thriving population of otters,"

 along the way passing several medieval mills,

and end up in a magnificent hill town like Nova Velia

or an abandoned 13th-century castle like Capaccio.

There are amazing cliffs and coves along the coast,

hiking trails up charming mountains,

ancient olive and lemon groves (you can adopt a historic olive tree),

and many fabulous towns. It seems like a place where I could spend many delightful days.

And that's before you even get to the two most famous sites. This is Paestum with its amazing Greek temples, built between 550 and 450 BC and dedicated to (front to back) Hera, Poseidon, and Athena. The temple of Poseidon is often said to be the best preserved of all Greek temples, and that it sits side-by-side with two others makes this a true place of wonder.

The amazing preservation of the temples owes something to the complete disappearance of the town. During the war between Justinian and the Goths, or sometime around then, the town was abandoned, and the canals that had kept its fields dry silted up, turning the place into a fetid malarial swamp. Dense growth of trees and brush hid the ruins from marble thieves until late in the eighteenth century when a road was cut nearby, and really the site got little attention until the twentieth century. Plus in modern times this has just been too far off the beaten path to attract any sort of development.

So if you can get there you can visit without being crowded by hordes of other tourists.

And then there is Velia, as the Romans called the old Greek settlement of Elea. This was once a great center of Greek culture, home to the philosophers Parmenides and Zeno (of the paradoxes). Because Velia was inhabited through medieval times the ancient buildings were demolished to erect churches and this splendid tower.

The most prominent remnant of ancient times is the walls.

But much has been exposed by archaeology.

So cast your mind toward Cilento, where nature mingles with history and otters sport among the ruins. It's close enough to Naples that you can get there without much trouble, but far enough away to escape the crush of humanity at Pompeii and Amalfi.