Saturday, August 31, 2019


Carvings on folding seats in medieval churches. The oldest surviving misericords date to the mid 1200s, but most were made after 1400. In England the practice mostly ceased after 1550, but it continued in Germany and the Low Countries down to the 1700s. (Canterbury Cathedral, late 1300s)

One of the oldest, from Hastière-par-delà in Belgium, c. 1250. It shows a man and woman fighting over a pestle and thus, one supposes. over power in the household.

Another from the same 13th-century set.

Godmanchester, 15th century.

Gloucester Cathedral, 14th century.

St. Chad's, Suffolk, 15th century.

Here's an illustration from a folklore, a variant of The Clever Daughter. She is going before the king "neither on horse nor on foot," thus, on a goat, one of several riddles she solved to free her father from prison. From Worcester Cathedral, c. 1379. This story was first written down in the early 1800s but this carving shows it was at least 400 years older.

From Wells Cathedral, 14th century, puppies playing.

Some naked people in trouble, from Bristol Cathedral, c. 1520.

Exeter Cathedral, 14th century.

Durham Cathedral, 15th century.

The Basilica of St. Materne in Walcourt, Belgium has a very famous group of amusing misericords from the early 1500s. Here a fox preaches in the hen house.

From the same church, a woman leads a man by a rope tied to his cock, which wikipedia helpfully tells us "represents the stronger sex in thrall to the power of lust." Carvings like this -- along with muffin tins and other low arts -- are our best glimpse into medieval humor.

And one more from Walcourt. Wikipedia has a lot of these and has thousands.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore, by Moshe Safdie Architects

When the government of Singapore wanted to expand their airport and make it more attractive to travelers, they turned to Moshe Safdie Architects, a US/Canadian firm which had already done several big projects in the city.

They produced the deisgn that became Jewel Changi Airport, a giant concourse/shopping mall/place to be built around an enormous indoor garden.

It's nothing special from the outside.

But you have to admit that the central open space is amazing.

Firm founder Moshe Safdie said of the project,
Jewel weaves together an experience of nature and the marketplace, dramatically asserting the idea of the airport as an uplifting and vibrant urban center, engaging travelers, visitors and residents, and echoing Singapore’s reputation as ‘The City in the Garden’.
In the center of the space is the Vortex, an oculus that allows rain to fall through, forming a five-story waterfall. Which was briefly the world's tallest indoor waterfall before being surpassed by one in China.

The cost is said to be $1.5 billion, and I bet that is only part of the real tally. Do you suppose any American city could build such a place? I don't think so. And maintaining this indoor forest will not be cheap.

Singapore can afford to do this because, with no military to speak of, they invest all their tax revenue in making the city more attractive to people with money: investors, tourists, organizers of international conferences, and the like.

So far it has worked very well for them, and this is certainly a very striking creation.

The Angels of St. Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn

St. Nicholas' Chapel is one of those semi-churches, where mass was held on Sundays but not weddings or baptisms. The first version was built by William Turbus, Bishop of Norwich from 1146 to 1174, so that some residents of his own rural manor would have their own church and not have to walk into King's Lynn.

What you see now dates from a complete rebuilding carried out in 1380 to 1413, when King's Lynn was a wealthy English trading town. By then the site had been absorbed by the growing town, so the chapel served an urban neighborhood.

The memoirs of famous mystic/madwoman Margery Kempe mention the ongoing dispute over whether this would become a parish church in its own right; she was told by an angel that it would never do so, and lo it never did.

The wonder of the place is hidden up in the 15th-century roof, hard to see from the floor.

These are the musical angels, which are dated to the mid 1400s. There are a lot of good pictures of these around because they were restored in 2015-2017.

Amazing, the things one can stumble on in old English churches.

Links 30 August 2019

Relief from the site of Vichama in Peru, about 3,800 years old. The froggish figure may represent rain.

If your library doesn't look impressive enough, you can hire a personal book curator to fill it out.

Something that would really make life more pleasant: attractive scaffolding that would eliminate plywood tunnels along sidewalks.

Hydrogels are small beads filled with water, coated with polymers, and held-together by strands of DNA. Using a gene-editing technology called CRISPR-Cas12a, scientists at MIT have fine-tuned the DNA controls to alter the shape of the gel or dissolve it completely when they encounter certain DNA sequences. They have already programmed gels to dissolve upon encountering the Ebola virus, creating a rapid detection system.

Great photo set of old Brussels

Kamala Harris as District Attorney: fighting to keep innocent people in prison, refusing to censure corrupt subordinates, "forgetting" to hand over exculpatory evidence to the defense; in other words, a typical prosecutor.

Ethiopians plant 350 million trees in 12 hours. Part of their plan to plant 4 billion trees this year.

The chicken sandwich wars.

The women who wait in line to hug Joe Biden. I think it is underdiscussed that while some women feel violated when a man hugs and kisses them, some women like it. The women who hate it seem to assume that other women agree with them, but not all do. A world in which people stopped hugging and kissing to avoid giving offense would be colder and lonelier for a lot of people.

The late 19th-century panic over disease-spreading library books:
An eccentric experimenter named William R. Reinick was concerned about multiple supposed illnesses and deaths from books. To test the danger of contracting disease, Greenberg writes, he exposed 40 guinea pigs to pages from contaminated books. According to Reinick, all 40 of his test subjects died.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Today's Political Maxim

Vaclav Havel, refusing to call for revenge on Czechoslovakia's former communist rulers:
We are not like them.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Polls and Studies about Support for Trump

Thomas Edsall has a round-up of recent polls and studies on who supports Trump and why, which I recommend. A couple of points:

1) The economic group that has moved most strongly toward the Republicans under Trump is white people with household incomes above the 60th percentile (currently $77,000/year) but without college degrees. This is now the Republicans' strongest socio-economic group. However, they have fallen from 42.1 percent of white voters 60 years ago to 22.0 percent. These people – skilled construction workers, factory supervisors, small business owners -– are the conservative backbone in America.

2) White evangelical voters are less racist than other groups of Trump supporters, however you measure racism. (This confirms my experience; very religious Christians often have warm feelings about other Christians of any race, and there is a fair amount of minister swapping between black and white congregations and things like that.) Yet, white evangelical voters are more enthusiastic in their support of Trump than non-religious Republicans. Edsall doesn't try to explain this, but I would point to two things. I suspect evangelicals are just stronger in their attachments to abstract causes than non-religious people, so once they take a side they support it with less hesitation. And, evangelicals feel themselves besieged in an increasingly secular America and think they need a fighter like Trump to defend them.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Yemen's Houthis are Beating the High-Tech Saudi Military

The Houthi movement that dominates Yemen, which now calls itself Ansar Allah, has proved remarkably adaptable. They began around 2004 as a bunch of badly organized guerrillas who could do little more than set bombs and stage ambushes. But as the Yemeni government collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence, venality, and brutality, they quickly metamorphosed into a fighting force capable of taking or defending towns, and in 2014 they made an alliance with a faction of disgruntled army officers, staged a coup, and took over the capital of the country and most of the government.

This victory caused Saudi Arabia and its allies to launch an intensive air campaign against the Houthi regime using up-to-date US planes, missiles, and radar. Billions have been spent in this war, and the Saudis have halted the advance of the Houthis, preventing them from taking over all of Yemen. The Saudis keep the front lines of the conflict under constant aerial surveillance, attacking any group of vehicles and even launching million-dollar missiles at lone men carrying guns.

The Houthis have adapted by dividing their forces into units of 3 to 5 men, never more than can fit in a single vehicle, and they cache weapons near any place they might want to fight so their soldiers can travel around unarmed. They have stopped using any sort of electronic signaling. They have filled combat zones with networks of bunkers connected by zig-zag trenches. As a result they are able to concentrate their men to repel any attack on their lands despite the constant presence of Saudi fighter-bombers overhead.

Where Ansar Allah has been notably more successful has been in the raiding war along Saudi Arabia's border, where it has fought a Hezbollah-style harassment campaign against Saudi border forces. Houthi forces have achieved great tactical success against Saudi border posts through offensive mine-laying on supply routes and ATGM [anti-tank guided missile] strikes on armored vehicles and outposts. The Houthi military has sustained more than three years of continuous raids and ambushes, demonstrating its resilience and depth of reserves. Ansar Allah is now one of the premier practitioners of offensive mine warfare in the world, utilizing a range of explosive devices, concealment tactics, and initiation methods.The Houthis make very effective propaganda use of video from such raids, with a dedicated cameraman attached to all raiding parties, irrespective of size. By March 2018, the Houthi movement had also fought a long-running deadly ‘cat-and-mouse’ game of rocket launches under Gulf coalition aerial surveillance, launching 66,195 short-range rockets into Saudi Arabia, killing 102 civilians, wounding 843, and depopulating several hundred small villages.
Lately the Houthis have been attacking Saudi oil facilities hundreds of miles from the border with missiles and drones.

All of this comes from a report posted on the web site of the West Point Center for Combating Terrorism. The report notes that while the Houthis now get a lot of support from Iran, that did not happen until after Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemeni civil war. Even the US military recognizes that the Saudi claim that they had to intervene in Yemen to block Iranian schemes is baloney.

Of course by intervening in that war the Saudis have created exactly the situation they feared, an Iranian ally on their southern border, so how they will extricate themselves from this quagmire is a hard question. One doubts the Trump administration will be much help.

The Manic Story of Lithium

Today's hero of psychiatry is John Cade, who spent much of World War II in a Japanese prison camp where he passed the time carefully observing the effects of vitamin deficiencies on his fellow prisoners.
After the war, he pursued his investigations. Working from an abandoned pantry in Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital near Melbourne, Australia, he began to collect urine samples from people with depression, mania and schizophrenia, aiming to discover whether some secretion in their urine could be correlated to their symptoms. With no access to sophisticated chemical analysis and largely unguided by theory, Cade injected the urine into the abdominal cavities of guinea pigs, raising the dose until they died. The urine of people with mania proved especially lethal to the animals.

In further experiments at Bundoora, Cade found that lithium carbonate — which had been used to treat conditions such as gout since the nineteenth century — reduced the toxicity of patients’ urine. Cade also noticed that a large dose of the medication tended to calm the guinea pigs. He could turn them on their backs, and the normally restive rodents would gaze placidly back at him. He wondered whether lithium could have the same tranquillizing effect on his patients. After trying it out on himself to establish a safe dose, Cade began treating ten people with mania. In September 1949, he reported fast and dramatic improvements in all of them in the Medical Journal of Australia. The majority of these patients had been in and out of Bundoora for years; now, five had improved enough to return to their homes and families.
If some weird guy on the Metro told you that lithium therapy was developed by injecting guinea pigs with human urine until they died, would you have believed him? But this is from Nature, a review of a new book about lithium by psychiatrist Walter Brown. Hard to find a better source.

Incidentally hardly anybody believed Cade's results when he published them, and even he gave up on lithium after one of his patients died of an overdose. It took another set of more orthodox psychiatrists to do the detailed studies and refine the dosing and so on to make lithium into a useful therapy.

In another incidentally, nobody has any idea how lithium works.

In a third, 7-Up used to contain lithium citrate, just like coca-cola used to contain cocaine.

And in the final incidentally, lithium carbonate is more common in the soils of East Africa where humans evolved than elsewhere, and it has been theorized that we evolved to need it and function better with a supplemental dose, which has led to calls to add lithium to drinking water.

Is the Amazon Burning?

Well, yes, but no more so than in most years and a lot less than in the peak burning era 15 years ago.

And note that this graph counts fires in Brazil, not the Amazon. In the Amazon, most fires burn beneath the tree canopy and are hard to count from satellites. Most of Brazil's fires are in drier areas, as you would expect, and most of the photographs you see in the news are of those hilly scrublands. Fires in scrublands do produce a lot of pollution, but they are part of a natural cycle that his been taking place in those areas for millennia. As in the American west, tight control of fires in those areas just leads to the build up of fuel and more catastrophic fires in the long run. It may be -- some people say this, anyway -- that the intensification of cattle raising in Brazil led to more frequent fires because ranchers set them to clear scrub for grazing land, but if so that process peaked in 2002-2007 and we are now back to something like the normal pattern.

While I am on the subject, there is no evidence that if too much rain forest is cleared it will never grow back. There are places in the world where cleared forests have not regrown, so it is not an absurd idea. But archaeology shows us that between 1000 BC and 1500 AD the Amazon region was densely populated by Native American farmers who cleared vast areas of forest for their fields; after those people were mostly wiped out by European and African diseases, the forests regrew very nicely.

The Amazon is the lungs of the planet! The lungs are being destroyed by fire! Once lost they can never be replaced! This is all silly hype. Rain forest produce oxygen, but probably not as much as you think, because the intensity of life also means a lot of respiration. Cattle pastures and soybean fields also produce oxygen. And the richest parts of the forest are growing on old Indian fields.

The Amazon rain forest has shrunk a lot over the past sixty years, and I think that is a bad thing. But shouting nonsense and insulting Brazilian farmers is not going to help.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Vincenzo Gemito

In the second half of the nineteenth century there was a revival of sculpture in the great Baroque mode, and this revival was especially strong in Italy. One of these neo-Baroque sculptors was Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929).

Gemito was abandoned on the doorstep of a foundling hospital when only a few days old, but he survived and was eventually adopted by a poor artisan. The skill in his hands was such that he was helping out local artists before he reached his teens, and he sold his first original work at 16.

He exhibited this Neapolitan Fisherboy at the 1877 Paris Salon, and it brought him acclaim and so many commissions he ended up staying in France for three years.

The realistic figures of this period were and still are very popular. For a while Gemito had his studio in the archaeological museum in Naples, surrounded by hundreds of ancient sculptures from Pompeii and other nearby sites.

Flush with cash, Gemito built his own bronze foundry in 1883. In 1886 he completed his only important public commission, a marble statue of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.

Then something happened. According to the Getty,
In 1887 Gemito suffered a mental collapse and withdrew to one room, concentrating entirely on drawing and seeing few friends.
Italian wikipedia blames the commission for that marble Charles V:
Disoriented by the unusual historical theme, the artist could only make the plaster model and the bronze sketch of Charles V, unable to translate it into marble: the work, which was conceived academically in the old style and was totally detached from his poetics, caused him a serious nervous breakdown that led him to hospitalization.
A "nervous breakdown" seems a rather lame description of what happened to Gemito, since he suffered from hallucinations for a decade afterward and did not resume sculpting for twenty years. A year after the breakdown Gemito escaped from the nursing home where he had been hospitalized and spent the years that followed in seclusion at home.

During this period Gemito focused on drawing, resulting in strange works that look like this self portrait.

And then in 1909 he suddenly resumed sculpting again. He also took up gold- and silver-smithing, creating works like this Medusa of 1911.

But all in all he seems to have done pretty well for himself for a foundling.

Tattoos and Personality

The latest social science:
Survey and experimental evidence documents discrimination against tattooed individuals in the labor market and in commercial transactions. Thus, individuals’ decision to get tattooed may reflect short-sighted time preferences. We show that, according to numerous measures, those with tattoos, especially visible ones, are more short-sighted and impulsive than the non-tattooed. Almost nothing mitigates these results, neither the motive for the tattoo, the time contemplated before getting tattooed nor the time elapsed since the last tattoo. Even the expressed intention to get a(nother) tattoo predicts increased short-sightedness and helps establish the direction of causality between tattoos and short-sightedness.
I can't see the rest of the paper because of the evil Elsevier paywall, but I wonder if the data have been corrected for age; after all tattoos are a lot more common among the young, and young people score as more short-sighted.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Pictish Symbol Stone Re-Used as Grave Marker

Interesting little discovery in Scotland:
Archaeologists have discovered a rare Pictish symbol stone that was reused as a headstone in the 18th century. It was found during a survey of an early Christian church site near Dingwall in the Scottish Highlands. It had been identified as a likely cross slab dating to the late 8th century. An inscription squeezed in on the top left of the front face reads: “Hugh McAulay Alexander McAulay January 2 1796.”
The stone is about a meter tall (3.3 feet), so likely about half remains missing.

I wonder if the people who reused it knew it was ancient? Scholars had published quite a bit about the symbols stones by then, so the McAulays might have intended to associate themselves with the old Picts.

Franz Schmidt and the Profession of Executioner

Franz Schmidt (1555-1634) was a professional executioner who left a voluminous diary that makes him quite likely the best known executioner in European history. By his account he executed 394 people, besides numerous floggings, maimings, applications of torture, and so on. The picture above was drawn in the margin of a court roll and is the only known portrait of Schmidt; it depicts him executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591.

Like most executioners he inherited his profession from his father; the elder Schmidt was the executioner of Bamberg. The son told the story that his father had been a woodsman when the Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach chose him from a crowd and forced him to perform a beheading, whereupon he had no choice but to take up the trade. In 1578 the younger Schmidt became the executioner of Nuremberg, where he remained for the rest of his life.

What interests me about this story is people's ambivalence toward executioners. On the one hand most people believed that public executions were vital for maintaining order, and royal or city officials stage managed executions to display their awesome power. There was a lot of pressure on the executioner to do the job quickly and cleanly, to uphold the majesty of the occasion and keep the crowd from getting unruly. (Schmidt's predecessor in Nuremberg once took three strokes to behead a victim, whereupon the crowd stormed the gallows and pelted him with frozen mudballs.) So executioner was an important office, and executioners for major courts were well paid and received all sorts of exemptions from taxes and duties and the like.

On the other hand, people feared executioners and considered them uncanny, dangerous, possibly satanic figures. People crossed the street to avoid walking through an executioners shadow. In much of Germany (but not England) executioners were forbidden from entering a church. They and their children were barred from most professions and no respectable person would allow his daughter to marry one. Yet this uncanny reputation also had its uses. Some executioners did a thriving business in body parts from executed criminals -- you may have heard of the alleged magical powers of a thief's hand, and this is only the most famous of a whole range of dark folk beliefs. Some became experts in witchcraft, playing up the notoriety they got from killing or torturing witches to sell amulets or other protections against magic.

Some also became healers. Franz Schmidt was one of these; according to his diary he treated 15,000 patients over the course of his life, deploying the usual mixture of herbal nostrums and folk Galenic lore. He also built up his knowledge of anatomy by dissecting cadavers and put this learning to use as a surgeon. Schmidt tried to escape from the executioner's role and free his children from its limitations, shifting his family's business from killing to healing. He appealed his case all the way to the Duke of Bavaria and his petition was eventually granted, lifting the curse from his line.

This basic pattern repeats all over Europe, in all sorts of ways. The authorities in church and state tried to divide the world into good and evil. Priests and doctors were good, witches bad; criminals were bad, officials of the state were good. But popular belief insisted on the ambivalence of power. People believed that a wise woman who had the power to cure would also have the power to curse. Execution might be necessary for the preservation of order, but it carried with it a taint that blackened the lives of those who performed it. Christian notions of good and evil were always mingled with an older notion of spiritual power, spiritual danger, and spiritual pollution.

And on a lighter note, here is a little story from an interview with historian Joel F. Harrington, who wrote a book about Schmidt. "Raven Stone" is what Germans called a rock marking the spot where beheadings took place:
The crowd could get too wild and unruly, or the prisoner could be bad. There was one man who was walking along with a bottle and drinking the whole way and spitting on people and when he got up to the Raven Stone he stopped and urinated in front of everybody. Then he climbed on top—still drinking—and Schmidt cut off his head while he was still holding the bottle. That was a bad death.