Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Results of Elections

Over a span of 2 to 4 years – that is, the time between elections – the party in power at the state level has very little impact on how things go:
Using difference-in-difference and regression discontinuity techniques, we find that US states governed by Democrats and those by Republicans perform equally well on economic, education, crime, family, social, environmental, and health outcomes on the timeline introduced by elections.
There are a few things one might say about this. The first would be that 2-4 years is not enough time for most government actions to have a measurable impact. Of course, that means voters considering whether to (say) re-elect a governor have no real basis for judging. Another would be that real power in this country is at the national level, so there just isn't much governors or state legislators can do to change the economic fundamentals.

I think this is a sign that the power of any government to change society is limited. It may be easy enough to wreck things, but making them better is just very hard.

The Philosopher's Courage

I have, I believe, the courage to doubt everything; I have, I believe, the courage to fight against everything; but I do not have the courage to acknowledge anything, the courage to possess, to own, anything.

–Søren Kierkegaard

The Torlonia Collection

Many of the greatest sculptures to have survived from the ancient world ended up in the collections of Italian princes, and so did much of the Renaissance and Baroque work that brought European sculpture back up to the classical standard. Most of those once private collections have long been accessible to the public in museums. Except for one, that of the Torlonia family. The owners allowed an art historian to make a catalog of their holdings some time ago, but this only whetted the appetite of art lovers who wanted more than a single black and white photo of these wonders.

Now, after years of negotiations, it looks like 96 pieces from the 620-piece collection will go on display in Rome this spring. Among the pieces to be displayed is this charming goat, an ancient work that was restored by Bernini.

Roman relief showing ships.

And a scene from the Odyssey. Sometimes I can't stop marveling that so much art survives from so long ago.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Manassas, this Week

Monday was gloriously sunny, but after that, clouds.

In the woods along Bull Run.

Bull Run

Yucca plant growing at the site of a house that burned in 1930.

Union attackers' view of the slope up Henry Hill, where the decisivie fighting took place during the First Battle of Bull Run

The the Confederate defenders' view, looking down the same slope.

Obama: Enough Casting Stones

The ex-President is still grouchy with woke activists:
This idea of purity, and you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. . . . There is this sense sometimes of ‘the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’ and that’s enough. Like if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb. Then, I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself because, ‘Man, you see how woke I was? I called you out.’ I’m gonna get on TV. Watch my show. Watch ‘Grown-ish.’ You know, that’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.

Halloween 1596, or, the Trail of Janet Wishart

Aberdeen's market square, with the 1686 Mercat Cross

During the Scottish Witch Panic of 1597, more than 400 people were tried as witches, and more than a hundred executed. One of these was Janet Wishart of Aberdeen. I find her case fascinating, besides which it includes this wonderful Halloween story:
Janet's son, Thomas Leyis, was found guilty of being a ringleader and convicted on three accounts of witchcraft. He is said to have presided at a meeting held on Halloween at midnight in the Castlegate when many witches convened between the mercat and fish crosses 'under the conduct and guiding of the devil present with them'. These people all danced and played instruments about the crosses and Thomas was accused of being foremost amongst them and of hitting Kathren Mitchell 'because she spoilt the dance and ran not so fast as the rest'. 
This story introduces the theme, which is that the trial of Janet and the other Wisharts connects much  more with the literature and theory of witchcraft than any other British case I know. Tales of witches frolicking on Halloween or other special nights abound in the stories but are rare in the trial transcripts.

Modern scholars have been very interested in why most victims of the witch trials were women, and one of their theories has been that the patriarchy used such accusations to control women and especially their sexually. Certainly some of the old books on witchcraft, especially the infamous Malleus Mallificarum, ooze disgust for women's bodies and women's desires. But again this is very rare in the trial transcripts, where after all the typical witch was an old woman, not a young, sexually active one. But Janet Wishart was a different sort of witch:
One of the earliest accusations referred to an incident in May 1572 when five men, three of them students, caught Janet creeping out of the yard of Adam Mair, her neighbour, at two o’clock in the morning. The men immediately woke Mair’s wife and told her what they had discovered. Furiously, Janet said, ‘Weill haif ye schemit me. I sail gar the best of yow repent’. Whereupon, that same day, between 2 and 3 in the afternoon, two of the youths were drowned in the Auld Wattergang in the Links, where they had gone to wash themselves.
The obvious interpretation of this is that the young men thought Janet was coming back from visiting her married lover, and when they informed the wronged wife Janet responded by cursing them in a way that killed two of them.

Brown dog from the Aberdeen Bestiary
And then this:
There is an air of novelty about the next case, that of John Allan, cutler, Janet Wishart's son-in-law. Quarrelling with his wife, he 'dang' her, 'whereupon Mistress Allan complained to her mother, who immediately betook herself to her son-in-law's house, 'bostit' him, and promised to gar him repent that ever he saw or kent her. Shortly afterwards, either she or the devil her master, in the likeness of a brown tyke [dog], came nightly for five or six weeks to his window, forced it open, leaped upon the said John, dang and buffeted him, while always sparing his wife, who lay in bed with him, so that the said John became half-wod and furious.' And this persecution continued, until he threatened to inform the ministry and kirk-session.
It's a bad idea to hit your wife when her mother is a powerful witch. In another case Janet was accused of sending a "nightmare cat" rather than a dog, with the same sleep-disturbing effect.

The source I am following rendered most of the trial transcript into something closer to modern English, but for this charge against one of Janet's daughters he also provided the original, which I provide since I know some of my readers are interested in the history of our language:
Fourlle thou art Indyttit for passing to the kirk of dyce and then gathe Ring of a numer of deid folkis banes, and seything thame in watter and tacking of That watter and therefter wasching willea[m] sy[m]mer in the haltoun of fyntrie (he Than being lyand deidlie seik) and therefter causing the said willia[m]is gude Mother tak the saids banes and cast thame in the watter of doyn, q[ui]lk Quhen sche had done, the watter ru[m]lit in sic a sort as all the hillis had fallin therin and this sich you can not deny

Fourthly you are indicted for passing to the Church of Dyce and there gathering a number of dead folk's bones and boiling them in water, and taking that water and thereafter washing William Symmer in the Hatton of Fintray (he then being lying deadly sick) and thereafter causing the said William's good mother take the said bones and cast them in the River Don, which when she had done, the water rumbled in such a manner as [if] all the hills had fallen therein and this you can not deny
But most of the charges against Janet were the usual sort. An example:
In the month of April, or thereabout, in 1591, in the "gricking" of the day, [that is, in the dawn,] Janet Wishart, on her way back from the blockhouse and Fattie, where she had been holding conference with the devil, pursued Alexander Thomson, mariner, coming forth of Aberdeen to his ship, ran between him and Alexander Fidler, under the Castle Hill, as swift, it appeared to him, as an arrow could be shot forth of a bow, going betwixt him and the sun, and cast her "cantrips" in his way. Whereupon, the said Alexander Thomson took an immediate "fear and trembling," and was forced to hasten home, take to his bed, and lie there for the space of a month, so that none believed he would live;--one half of the day burning in his body, as if he had been roasting in an oven, with an extreme feverish thirst, "so that he could never be satisfied of drink," the other half of the day melting away his body with an extraordinarily cold sweat. And Thomson, knowing she had cast this kind of witchcraft upon him, sent his wife to threaten her, that, unless she at once relieved him, he would see that she was burnt. And she, fearing lest he should accuse her, sent him by the two women a certain kind of beer and some other drugs to drink, after which Thomson mended daily, and recovered his former health.
And this:
She [Janet] and her daughter, Violet Leyis, desired ... her woman to go with her said daughter, at twelve o'clock at night, to the gallows, and cut down the dead man hanging thereon, and take a part of all his members from him, and burn the corpse, which her servant would not do, and, therefore, she was instantly sent away.
Like many other accused witches Janet Wishart was also a healer, and regularly gave out or sold charms and potions. In one case a woman said she had earned Janet's enmity by revealing to her friends a charm Janet had sold her. When Janet's son was in prison awaiting trial, one of his neighbors visited him for advice on how to rid her home of a troublesome spirit.

Janet Wishart comes across as a formidable woman. She was described as the leader of her family, more dangerous and powerful than her husband or son. People said that with her magic she murdered children, ruined people financially, coerced them to do her bidding by sending them nightmares. She is shown, more than any other accused witch I know of, playing up her fearsome reputation to get her way. Her anger was power.

And one more case, which perhaps more than any other gets into the minds of people who feared witchcraft and invoked the power of the law against witches:
Twelve years since, or thereby, Janet came into Katherine Rattray's, behind the Tolbooth, and while she was drinking in the said Katherine's cellar, Katherine reproved her for drinking in her house, because, she said, she was a witch. Whereupon, she took a cup full of ale, and cast it in her face, and said that if she were indeed a witch, the said Katherine should have proof of it; and immediately after she had quitted the cellar, the barm of the said Katherine's ale all sank to the bottom of the stand, and no had abaid [a bead] thereon during the space of sixteen weeks. And the said Katherine finding herself 'skaithit,' complained to her daughter, Katherine Ewin, who was then in close acquaintance with Janet, that she had bewitched her mother's ale; and immediately thereafter the said Katherine Ewin called on Janet, and said, 'Why bewitched you my mother's ale?' and requested her to help the same again. Which Janet promised, if Katherine Ewin obeyed her instructions ... to rise early before the sun, without commending herself to God, or speaking, and neither suining herself nor her son sucking on her breast; to go, still without speaking, to the said Katherine Rattray's house, and not to cross any water, nor wash her hands; and enter into the said Katherine Rattray's house, where she would find her servant brewing, and say to her thrice, 'I to God, and thou to the devil!' and to restore the same barm where it was again; 'and to take up thrie dwattis on the southt end of the gauttreyis, and thair scho suld find ane peice of claithe, fowr newikit, with greyn, red, and blew, and thrie corss of clewir girss, and cast the same in the fyir; quhilk beand cassin in, her barm suld be restorit to hir againe, lyik as it was restorit in effect.'

And the said Katherine Ewin, when cracking [gossiping] with her neighbours, said she could learn them a charm she had gotten from Janet Wishart, which when the latter heard, she promised to do her an evil turn, and immediately her son, sucking on her breast, died. And at her first browst, or brewing, thereafter, the whole wort being played and put in 'lumes,' the doors fast, and the keys at her own belt, the whole wort was taken away, and the haill lumes fundin dry, and the floor dry, and she could never get trial where it yird to. And when the said Katherine complained to the said Janet Wishart, and dang herself and her good man both, for injuries done to her by taking of her son's life and her wort [which Katherine seems to have thought of about equal value], she promised that all should be well, giving her her draff for payment. And the said Katherine, with her husband Ambrose Gordon, being in their beds, could not for the space of twenty days be quit of a cat, lying nightly in their bed, between the two, and taking a great bite out of Ambrose's arm, as yet the place testifies, and when they gave up the draff, the cat went away.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Say "Uncle"

A gentleman was boasting that his parrot would repeat anything he told him. For example, he told him several times, before some friends, to say “Uncle,” but the parrot would not repeat it. In anger he seized the bird, and half-twisting his neck, said: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar!” and threw him into the fowl pen, in which he had ten prize fowls. Shortly afterward, thinking he had killed the parrot, he went to the pen. To his surprise he found nine of the fowls dead on the floor with their necks wrung, and the parrot standing on the tenth twisting his neck and screaming: “Say ‘uncle,’ you beggar! say uncle.”

Iowa Citizen of 9 October 1891

This may bey the earliest recorded appearance of the phrase, “say uncle.” But that does not mean it is the origin of the phrase. To me the story sounds like a joke explanation of an idiom already in circulation, and some etymologists think the phrase comes from the Irish “anacol,” which can mean “mercy.” Still, it's a great story.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Anything for Science

In the late 1700s there was a fad for scientific experiments among the British elite, giving us for example the Lunar Society, or Ben Franklin's experiments with lightning. And this:
In 1797 the Annual Register [of the Royal Society] recorded as noteworthy but hardly surprising an experiment that had been going on for four years: a labourer who had a large family has responded to an advertisement and offered himself, mouse-like, for detention underground, "to live for seven years without seeing a human face." The bait was provision for his wife and children while he was gone and £50 per year thereafter.
The experimenter was a Mr. Powyss of Moreham. And that is absolutely all we know about this incident or the people involved.

Norma Clarke in the TLS for 4 October 2019

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Today's Place to Daydream about: Aberdeen, Scotland

Aberdeen is a city of about 200,000 people on the northeast coast of Scotland. To the right in this picture is the Mercat Cross, which marked the site of the medieval market.

It has fared better than most small, remote European cities because it serves as the hub for Britain's North Sea oil and gas operations, and the influx of money has kept it thriving. It regularly shows up on lists of the best places to live in Britain.

Many of the older buildings are built of the local gray granite, and one of Aberdeen's names is The Granite City.

There are several charming old neighborhoods; this is Footdee.

As the regional center for north-east Scotland, Aberdeen has numerous attractions: museums, a botanical garden, and so on, as well as plenty of restaurants and pubs.

The interior of St. Machar's Cathedral, built in the 1200s but extensively modified after it became a Protestant Kirk.

The university has many lovely old buildings.

Drive a few miles north to Balmedie Beach, a delightful stretch of sand and surf. Too bad it's usually freezing, but you can't have everything.

Aberdeenshire is full of ruins, such as the spectacular Dunnottar Castle, about 10 miles south of Aberdeen. This site has been fortified since the early middle ages, but most of what you see here dates to the 1400s and 1500s. This is where the Scottish crown jewels were hidden from Oliver Cromwell's men. When he found out the jewels were at Dunnottar he besieged the castle, but they were somehow smuggled out; under a lady's clothes is one version, in a basket of seaweed is another.

It would be a pleasant place to wander around on a day like today.

The Scottish Witch Panic of 1597

This post started with a monumentally annoying article in the Times, in which the writer bemoans that nobody remembers the persecution of Scottish witches. This is, for some reason the author does not explain, a very bad thing to forget. And maybe it would be, if anyone had actually forgotten it. I have found that the persecution of witches is one of the most widely known things about European history; I have personally never encountered a freshman who had not heard of it, and I have met freshmen who did not know that princesses had arranged marriages.

But that inane piece linked to a cool interactive map posted by the University of Edinburgh that shows all the well-documented witch trials in Scotland. Perusing this map, I noticed that the obscure town of Kirkcaldy had 34 known witch trials. Clicking on the little blue woman, I found that many of those cases were from a single year, 1597.

That started me searching for information on the Scottish Witch Panic of 1597. Scotland, it turns out, had five major waves of witch burning, in 1590-1591, 1597, 1628-1631, 1649, and 1661-1662.  The 1649 panic is fairly famous because it was by far the biggest and took place in the middle of the British civil wars, and the 1590-1591 comes up because King James VI/I wrote a book about it, and it is supposed to have inspired Shakespeare to write Macbeth. But I never heard of the 1597 panic.

Historians like to explain things. For example, the 1590 witch panic followed a disastrous harvest and was personally pushed by the king, and the 1649 panic followed the victory of the godly "Kirk Party", who tried to turn Scotland into a Puritan state. But nobody has any idea why there was a witch panic in 1597. Sometimes, it seems, things just happen.

During this year, at least 400 people were tried for witchcraft in Scotland, and more than 100 were executed. The exact number of deaths is hard to pin down, because from this period a lot more indictments survive than verdicts.

As to why there were so many trials in Kirkcaldy, that is an interesting tale. It resulted from the arrest of one woman, Margaret Aitken, in the nearby hamlet of Balwearie. Balwearie had been a place of sinister reputation since the time of medieval scholar Michael Scot of Balwearie, remembered in Scottish folklore as a mighty wizard. Anyway when Margaret Aitken was arrested and put to the torture, she told the judges that she had been to a sabbath in Atholl with 2,300 other Scottish witches, and she started naming names.

She quickly ran through all of her neighbors, several of whom were also tried. Aitken kept the judges listening by saying that she could identify other witches by a look or sign in their eyes. Feeling like they had finally had a stroke of luck in their long battle against Satan, the judges carted Aitken around eastern Scotland for four months, letting her identify other witches, some of whom were also tried. People started calling Aitken the Great Witch of Balwearie.

According to a pamphlet written afterwards, Aitken was eventually exposed as a fraud. A skeptical judge brought some people to before her for her verdict on whether they were witches, then brought them back the next day in different clothes, whereupon Aitken gave different verdicts. The exposé, people say, brought that wave of witch persecutions to a close. Whether that is true, I have no idea; as I said there is only one source and it sounds an awful lot like a folktale. But somehow or other the authorities turned against Aitken and had her executed, and somehow or other the persecution did end. For a few years, anyway.

Friday, October 25, 2019

LInks 25 October 2019

Aztec architectural ornament showing youth, old age and death as nested faces

Reading books vs. listening to them.

Amputees who merge with their prosthetic limbs.

Whalefall: the video.

A skeptical look at Viking warrior women.

Mostly evolution works by modifying existing genes or adapting them to new purposes. But sometimes species create new genes from scratch.

Weird report from a Florida suburb which, the writer says, has divided into hostile factions that regularly sue each other and call the cops on each other's children, despite all being white Republicans.

Interesting analysis of 50 people who claim to have achieved a state of mystic enlightenment; among other things it reveals that the people around them can't tell the difference.

Dramatic population decline in southeastern Europe as young people seek opportunity elsewhere; by 2050 Bulgaria may shrink by 25%.

How to give advice.

Interesting short article on the history of corporate science in the US.

You can download all 435 images from Audubon's Birds of North America here.

Rating the new plant-based burgers. I tried an Impossible Whopper recently and to me it tasted indistinguishable from a regular Whopper, that is, pretty bad. As my eldest son said, they've achieved the bare minimum. But maybe with proper preparation the stuff could actually be good.

A late obituary for Sanmao (1943-1991), a Taiwanese writer whose journey to the Sahara and defiant pose toward authority captivated and still captivates Chinese women.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Five Chinese Hitmen

Five hitmen have been jailed for attempted murder after each one avoided carrying out the contract themselves so they could make a profit.

Chinese businessman Tan Youhui was looking for a hitman to take out a competitor, Wei Mou, and was willing to pay 2 million yuan (£218,000) to get the job done.The hitman that Mr Youhui hired decided to offer the job to another hitman for half the original price. The second hitman then subcontracted to another hitman, who then subcontracted to a fourth, who gave the job to a fifth.

However, hitman number five was so incensed at how much the value of the contract had fallen, that he told the target to fake his own death, which eventually led to the police finding out about the plot, Beijing News reported. The businessman and the hapless assassins were all convicted of attempted murder by the court in Nanning, Guangxi, following a trial that lasted three years.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Iraq after the ISIS War

Interesting comment from Tom Friedman:
It was quite logical that after ISIS emerged in Iraq and Syria in 2014 that the U.S. would take on the mission of helping to destroy ISIS in Iraq.

Washington felt guilty having removed all combat troops from Iraq before it was really stabilized and ISIS had brutally murdered American journalists. But rather than do it all ourselves, we partnered with the Iraqi Army and amplified its power and ground forces with our advisers and air power.

That approach led not only to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq, it also produced some unanticipated positive effects in Iraqi politics. The ISIS war became a kind of national war of liberation for Iraqis that brought moderate Iraqi Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds closer together — and gave them dignity that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had unintentionally stolen. And this paved the way for more stable and sustainable power-sharing among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites in Iraq.

Iraq today remains a very frail democracy — with huge challenges in employment, energy, corruption and governing. But “Iraq today is a different country,” noted Linda Robinson in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Winning the Peace in Iraq: Don’t Give Up on Baghdad’s Fragile Democracy. “Few Americans understand the remarkable success” that has been achieved in bringing Iraq back from the depth of the ISIS war.

This doesn’t mean that the original Iraq invasion was worth it or that we would do it again. But it does mean we found the right way to help Iraqis help themselves. It is now up to them to make the most of it.
I wrote in 2015 after the Battle of Tikrit that I hoped winning this war would have good effects in Iraq, and so it seems to have been. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

Universities Struggling

Over the past three years, more than 30 colleges and universities in the US have closed, and many more are in danger. This is caused by a slight decline in the number of 18-year-olds – the early 2000s were not a great time for births – a small decline in the number of international students, the excellent job market (which lures many high school grads directly into the work force), the high drop-out rate, and the general woes of higher education in America.

This Times article explores some of the things colleges are doing in their struggle to survive:
  1. merging;
  2. cutting programs;
  3. emphasizing career training (nursing, cybersecurity, etc.) over liberal arts;
  4. creating combined undergrad/grad programs like the 5-year BA/MBA;
  5. offering rebates to graduates who can't get jobs;
  6. getting into adult learning and corporate training;
  7. And even, would you believe, cutting tuition.
I have my doubts that any of this is going work without a major shift in how Americans think about education. I expect continued decline in enrollments and many more colleges to fail or be taken over.

Demographically colleges are going to get a brief boost from the small baby boom that took place in the bubble years of 2006-2008, but after the crash the birth rate crashed, too, so the years from 2026 on are going to get grim.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Diving for Pearls Goes Back 7500 Years

Archaeologists in Abu Dhabi have reported the discovery of a pearl they have radiocarbon dates to 5800-5600 BC. The pearl came from a Neolithic village on an island in the Persian Gulf. Of course any one pearl might have washed up on the beach or what have you, but actually quite a few sizable pearls have come from Neolithic sites in the region, enough that archaeologists think they were being intentionally sought.

RIP Matthew Wong

Matthew Wong was a self-taught Canadian painter who died of suicide at 35. He suffered throughout his life from depression and Tourette's syndrome, and his mother says he was on the Autism spectrum. Above, The Realm of Appearances (2019)

Wong killed himself less than a year after his first major solo show made him an art world success.  Winter's End, 2019.

His mother says that he once told her, "I’m fighting with the Devil every single day, every waking moment of my life." Starlight, 2019.

Figure in a Night Landscape, 2017. The critics who admired Wong's art picked up on its sadness; one called these "tinged with melancholy."  Do the tiny figures and houses in these paintings represent the Artist's soul, lost in a vast world beyond his understanding?

Winter Nocturne, 2017. The tortured artist is not just a fable; artists really do have a much higher rate of severe mental illness than the rest of us. We have so far to go before we can ease the suffering of so many people, so much to learn before we can understand the tangled skein of pain and wonder that gives birth to art like this.