Anybody know who the guy with the huge fish is?
Wednesday, September 30, 2020
Capitals from the Former Abbey of St. Martin in Saujon, France
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Wine Country Burns
The Black Rock Inn, St. Helena, CA. More pictures at the LA Times
The Iron Law of Explanation, or, Why Scientists Work so Hard
Joshua Rothman reviews The Knowledge Machine, a new book on science by philosopher Michael Strevens, which purports to reveal “the monstrosity that lies at the heart of modern science.” That monstrosity is work, the absolutely gigantic amounts of data collection modern scientists have to do before they can publish anything:
Strevens tells the story of Roger Guillemin and Andrew Schally, two “rival endocrinologists” who shared a Nobel Prize in 1977 for discovering the molecular structure of TRH—a hormone, produced in the hypothalamus, that helps regulate the release of other hormones and so shapes many aspects of our lives. Mapping the hormone’s structure, Strevens explains, was an “epic slog” that lasted more than a decade, during which “literally tons of brain tissue, obtained from sheep or pigs, had to be mashed up and processed.” Guillemin and Schally, who were racing each other to analyze TRH—they crossed the finish line simultaneously—weren’t weirdos who loved animal brains. They gritted their teeth through the work. “Nobody before had to process millions of hypothalami,” Schally said. “The key factor is not the money, it’s the will . . . the brutal force of putting in sixty hours a week for a year to get one million fragments.”
Looking back on the project, Schally attributed their success to their outsider status. “Guillemin and I, we are immigrants, obscure little doctors, we fought our way to the top,” he said. But Strevens points out that “many important scientific studies have required of their practitioners a degree of single-mindedness that is quite inhuman.” It’s not just brain juice that demands such commitment. Scientists have dedicated entire careers to the painstaking refinement of delicate instruments, to the digging up of bone fragments, to the gathering of statistics about variations in the beaks of finches. Uncertain of success, they toil in an obscurity that will deepen into futility if their work doesn’t pan out.
Behind the intriguing discoveries and bold theories that fans of science love to read about
are long hours, days, months of tedious laboratory labor. The single greatest obstacle to successful science is the difficulty of persuading brilliant minds to give up the intellectual pleasures of continual speculation and debate, theorizing and arguing, and to turn instead to a life consisting almost entirely of the production of experimental data.
Scientists do this, Strevens says, because of the Iron Law of Explanations, which says that
if they are to participate in the scientific enterprise, they must uncover or generate new evidence to argue with . . . and they must conduct all disputes with reference to empirical evidence alone.
I agree with Strevens that there is something barely human about the mountains of work scientists have to do in order to accomplish anything. This makes me wonder a little about the future of our society; how can it be a good thing for our progress to depend on many of our smartest people giving up family life and just about every thing else for their careers? I suppose in the Middle Ages many intellectuals were monks, and they survived, but it still bothers me that we should ask so much of anyone who wants to be a scientist.
Statues and the Pueblo Revolt
Among the many protests and other symbolic gestures that have rocked the US this year, my eye is caught by graffiti scrawled on the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe:
1680 Land Back
The date refers to the Pueblo Revolt, a rising of native people across New Mexico and beyond against Spanish rule and especially against imposed Catholicism. The revolt was a remarkable event, in which more than forty different communities speaking several unrelated languages came together to drive out the Spanish and kill all the priests they could get their hands on. The organizer was a man we know as Popé. He solved the problem of how to coordinate the rising by giving messengers cords tied into a long series of knots; they and then the recipients were to untie one knot each day until there were no more; this would be the agreed day of the rising, August 11. There were complications and the rising actually began in many places on the 10th, but it worked; more than 400 Spanish and converted Indians were killed and the rest were besieged at Santa Fe, then allowed to escape back to Mexico.
The native towns kept their independence until 1692, and they agreed to Spanish overlordship only under certain conditions, the most important of which was being allowed to maintain their own religions. And they did; there are still more than 20 formally independent native communities in New Mexico, most of which still practice their traditional religions.
Some activists have lately been demanding that statues of Spanish governors and Franciscan priests – "conquistadors", activists call them –be torn down and replaced with statues of native leaders, especially Popé. They seem to intend this as a radical act, but I would point out that there is already a statue of Popé in the US Capitol, placed there by the state of New Mexico, by way of acknowledging the diverse heritage of its people. (see photo at top)
This gets us back to the vexed question of statues, because the people of New Mexico do not universally support statues of Popé. After all New Mexico has many more Catholic citizens than followers of traditional Native American religions, and Popé tried to slaughter all the priests. On a deeper level, some Hispanic activists point with pride to the origin of their culture in a fusion of Native American and Spanish traditions. They recognize that the process of creating Hispanic identities was sometimes violent and otherwise awful, but they like the result and do not like to see its creation portrayed as merely conquest and oppression.
Although, of course, we don't know all that much about Popé, from what we do know he seems to have utterly rejected everything Spanish. He even wanted his followers to slaughter all their European livestock and throw away their iron tools. If they did this, he is supposed to have said, then their gods would return to earth to live among them, ushering in a new golden age.
Maybe he taught those things, maybe he did not; from this distance it is hard to say. But he certainly rejected Spanish culture, and therefore the fusion of Spanish and native traditions that led to the modern Hispanic identity. He certainly advocated the killing of Catholic priests.
Me, I have no objection to statues of Popé. I see them as representing Native resistance to Spanish conquest, and the determination of some native communities to maintain their own ways and their own beliefs. As I said, they had a lot of success in this, and I see nothing wrong with their being proud of that heritage. If Popé was a violent man who believed some very weird stuff, I don't much care; as a statue he is not a person, but a symbol of Native resistance and survival.
I feel the same way about statues of Franciscan missionaries and Spanish generals. Many Hispanic activists see those statues as representing their own identity, as distinct from that of the Anglo majority, and they see calls to take them down as attacks on their own tradition. They want those statues to be understood as I understand statues of Popé, not as particular men guilty of particular crimes but as symbols of the Spanish colonial experience and all that emerged from it.
And (you knew where this was headed), that is how I feel about statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. There is much about both men I do not admire; you will not find me among those praising Washington as a great general or Jefferson as a great thinker and statesmen. But statues, to me, do not just represent people. They are symbols. Statues of our Founding Fathers represent the work they did in establishing the United States, the first, large, diverse Republic in the history of the world, a fantastically bold experiment in human self-government. I am perfectly comfortable setting aside whatever else they said and did to honor those acts.
What I ask about a statue is this: what does it represent? I have trouble seeing statues of John Calhoun, Jefferson Davis or Roger Tawney as anything other than symbols of white supremacy, so, hey, tear them down. But the careers of most famous people are a lot more complicated than that.
Every heroic statue in the world represents a flawed person. Which is why, I think, we should have a lot of them, in diverse profusion. We should have statues of everybody's heroes. Beside Washington and Lincoln we should have Popé, Red Cloud, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Richard Feynman, whoever. If we're going to tolerate each other, we're going to have to tolerate statues of each other's heroes, whenever we can find a plausible excuse to do so.
No Improvements in Mental Health Care
A new study of productivity in US healthcare from 1999-2012, which looked at both the cost and effectiveness of care, found that there was significant improvement in some areas, especially heart disease treatment. But,
There has been very little progress over that same period in treating mental illness, arthritis, and musculoskeletal conditions. . . .
Despite a vast increase in the number of people treated with drugs for mental illness, the population’s mental health showed essentially no change over time.
Monday, September 28, 2020
Shimao and the Origins of Chinese Civilization
Shimao is a major archaeological site in northern China, at the edge of the Ordo desert. Its impressive walls were long thought by locals to be part of the Great Wall, which does run nearby.
But people poking around the ruins found artifacts that seemed out of place for a remote medieval fortress, including implements made of Jade from a thousand miles away.
The center of Shimao was an immense platform topped by a pyramid 230 feet tall, with 6 miles (10 km) of walls. The population is estimated as at least 10,000. The center of the site is a citadel or palace complex covering 20 acres (8 ha), with its own cistern and craft areas.
The most spectacular discover was six pits containing 80 skulls placed at the corners of key structures and almost certainly human sacrifices. Two pits on either side of the main gain each contained 24 skulls, all of them teenage girls.
Sunday, September 27, 2020
Why the New Coronavirus Doesn't Kill Children
Why the coronavirus affects children much less severely than adults has become an enduring mystery of the pandemic. The vast majority of children do not get sick; when they do, they usually recover.
The first study to compare the immune response in children with that in adults suggests a reason for children’s relative good fortune. In children, a branch of the immune system that evolved to protect against unfamiliar pathogens rapidly destroys the coronavirus before it wreaks damage on their bodies, according to the research, published this week in Science Translational Medicine. . . .
When the body encounters an unfamiliar pathogen, it responds within hours with a flurry of immune activity, called an innate immune response. The body’s defenders are quickly recruited to the fight and begin releasing signals calling for backup.
Children more often encounter pathogens that are new to their immune systems. Their innate defense is fast and overwhelming.
Over time, as the immune system encounters pathogen after pathogen, it builds up a repertoire of known villains. By the time the body reaches adulthood, it relies on a more sophisticated and specialized system adapted to remembering and fighting specific threats.
So while the adult immune system works better against pathogens the body has seen before, that of children works better against those that have never been seen. And since very few of us (at least in the West) have seen this before, children have an advantage. In fact, if this is right, it seems that the threat posed by Covid-19 falls into a the range of dangers that the child immune system can handle easily but adults cannot, a range that I suspect must be very small.
QAnon and Child Abuse
The QAnon conspiracy theory spread like crazy over the summer. Along its way to prominence it escaped from the masculine world of 8chan where it began and entered mostly female networks, especially on Facebook. In trying to explain its appeal to women and especially Christian women, some people have pointed to its focus on child abuse. A few halfway serious people have suggested that if nothing else the theory is useful in raising awareness that child sexual abuse is a huge problem in our society.
Ok, fine, but to the extent that QAnon deals with real problems (child abuse, the concentration of power in secret parts of the government) it does so in entirely the wrong way. What we have learned about the Catholic church should inoculate us against dismissing all notions of pedophile conspiracies; Jeffrey Epstein was up to something awfully sinister. But such secret cabals, no matter how evil, are a small part of the evil we deal with every day.
Most abused children are abused by people very close to them. Most abusers are parents, step-parents, other relatives, baby-sitters. Most of the rest is done by other trusted people: coaches, doctors, teachers. Less than 10% of child sexual abuse is done by strangers.
So I think QAnon and allied notions are another case of our never-ending quest to blame outsiders for our problems. It can't be our friendly neighbors who are responsible for this outrage, it must be evil enemies of the people, some group we can identify and cast out and blame. It can't be us; it can't be me.
The other real problem that QAnon touches on is the great power of the Military-Industrial-Intelligence Complex, which sometimes does act like a Deep State. Sometimes it seems to me that our wars drag on to serve purposes unknown to, and not at all accepted by, the citizens. But on the other hand we had in 2016 Republican debates that devolved into competitions over who could say the most violent and inflammatory things about Iran and Yemen, and the winner was the man who casually suggested carpet bombing whole countries. So it's not like the violent tendencies of America are secret, or confined to shadowy office buildings in Washington.
Sometimes there are real conspiracies, and sometimes they do real harm. But the big problems of our age are right out in the open, and they implicate all of us, not just a shadowy cabal of rich people bent on subverting the values of the good and wholesome majority.
Saturday, September 26, 2020
Security Madness at EBay
Totally crazy story about how EBay corporate security, after watching way too many gangster movies, decided to "take down" two small-time bloggers who occasionally complained about how EBay did business:
According to prosecutors, Mr. Baugh and members of the security team devised a convoluted and improbable strategy: to secretly harass the Steiners, and then offer eBay’s assistance in stopping the attacks — winning the Steiners’ confidence and manipulating them into favorable coverage of eBay. They called it “the White Knight strategy.” Inevitably, there was a movie screening: “Body of Lies,” a C.I.A. thriller about a fake plot that draws out a real terrorist.
Prosecutors say that on Aug. 7, Ms. Popp — the “Mom” to Mr. Baugh’s “Dad” — began sending Twitter messages to Ms. Steiner via a fake account, @Tui_Elei. The profile picture was a skull, and he seemed to be an eBay user from Samoa who believed that EcommerceBytes had harmed his sales. Ms. Steiner ignored the messages, even as the tone got angrier and more abusive. @Tui_Elei wrote: “I guess im goin to have to get ur attention another way bitch…”
A parade of disturbing deliveries began at 4 p.m. on Aug. 10, when a package containing a bloody pig mask arrived at the Steiners’ home. Fourteen minutes later, @Tui_Elei wrote: “DO I HAVE UR ATTENTION NOW????”
The Steiners received a book titled “Grief Diaries: Surviving the Loss of a Spouse” and a funeral wreath. They got fly larvae and live spiders and a box of cockroaches. Copies of the September issue of “Hustler: Barely Legal” touting “eye-popping 18-year-olds” arrived at the homes of neighbors with David Steiner’s name on them.
The Twitter bombardment continued, as @Tui_Elei began to hint at violence: “wen u hurt our bizness u hurt our familys… Ppl will do ANYTHING 2 protect family!!!!”
I am always baffled by the way some people take on their employers as their tribe and go looking for tribal enemies to fight. I don't think this is any kind of corporate norm; as soon as EBay's lawyers found out about this, the security people were all fired. But given a little power and secrecy, some people go crazy.
Friday, September 25, 2020
Not much else is going very well, but the weather has been spectacular. The deer have been at the garden but some things still look lovely.
And we had one gardening triumph this year: finally, after ten years of encouraging milkweed to spread all over the garden, we had several monarch caterpillars, and now we have three chrysali hanging from stalks and the shed wall.
The Lord of Brück
Near the village of Brück in central German archaeologists have discovered a cemetery containing at least 60 graves, all dating to around the year 500 AD. The most recent find is the spectacular tomb of a Germanic king. Above is a pit full of sacrificed animals – bulls, stallions, and dogs – adjacent to the main tomb.
The king's body seems to have been placed in a bronze cauldron at the center of the tomb, but this was in poor repair so the archaeologists crated up the whole thing for excavation in their lab.
Glass bowl from the tomb.
Coin of the Emperor Zeno, who reigned off and on from 474 to 491.
The excavators think this small statue might have been 300 years old before it went in the ground, so it might have been a treasured heirloom of this family or tribe.
Links 25 September 2020
Here's some diversity for you: the Black Girl Hockey Club, formed by black female hockey fans who were uncomfortable attending NHL games with their mostly white, male crowds. (NY Times)
Oregon's CAHOOTS program, which has EMTs and social workers responding to some calls rather than police.
Airbus releases early-stage designs for hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Is the Dutch royal family's golden coach racist?
Among the things you can find on YouTube is Lyndon Johnson's speech in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination.
That came from Farhad Manjoo's NY Times piece about reliving the 1960s on the internet.
The log book of a slave ship, 1795.
Movement in Scotland to pardon all the women executed for witchcraft. I don't suppose anyone supports an exception for the ones who really tried to do black magic.
As battery prices fall, the era of electric cars seems right around the corner. (NY Times)
Battling the invasive spotted lanternfly.
Review of Orlando Patterson's new book, with a long discussion of his take on slavery and the post-colonial experience.
In 1795 American politics was riled by conspiracy theories about the Bavarian Illuminati, spread by (among others) Yale president Timothy Dwight.
Because of the energy cost of operating all those servers, the environmental cost of music streaming is greater than printing and shipping CDs. According to this calculation, the environmental cost of music is now greater than ever.
Thursday, September 24, 2020
A Thought about Cities
From The Life and Death of Ancient Cities by Greg Woolf:
If we could trace a family tree for all the world's cities back to one single moment of invention, we could begin our story from there. In reality urbanism had many origins. Cities have been invented again and again. They were created in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia and northern China, in the High Andes of the Inca, and on the Anatolian plateau by Hittites and their neighbours. The Maya built cities in what are now the forests of the Yucatan peninsula and traded with urban populations in southeast Mexico. There were cities in ancient Thailand, and south of the Sahara. There were cities in woodland America long before the arrival of Europeans, and perhaps even in the Amazon basin. . . .
When people crossed Beringia to the New World,
urban life was completely outside their experience and beyond their imagination. There had been no cities anywhere on the planet when their ancestors left Eurasia. The flooding of Beringia meant that their descendants had virtually no contact with non-American populations until the arrival of Europeans some five hundred years ago. Yet within a few thousand years of arriving in the continent early Americans had created a number of urban cultures, each one different from all the others in detail, yet all spookily similar to those being created around the same time by fantastically distant cousins across Eurasia and North Africa. When the conquistadores in Peru encountered the great Inca city of Cuzco they could immediately recognize temples and palaces, avenues and piazzas, great monuments and humble dwellings just like those they had known at home.
Of course Europeans who reach Mexico also recognized kings, nobles, armies, army officers, religious processions, sacrifice, merchants, leagues of smaller states united against a single larger foe, market districts divided into streets each dominated by a single trade, clothing distinctions that indicated social rank, and many other things. Much about our lives seems to be determined by the basic technology of our times, and therefore to appear around the world in every society that reaches that stage of development.
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Violence on the Iron Age Steppes
A new study of skeletons from Tuva on the steppes of southern Siberia shows a frightening level of violence in the early centuries CE. The inhabitants would have been steppes nomads related to the Scythians:
The study demonstrates that 25% of the individuals died as a consequence of interpersonal violence, mostly related to hand-to-hand combat, often represented by traces of decapitation. Even though violence affected mostly men, also women and children were found among the victims. Some of the individuals from Tunnug1 show traces of throat-slitting and scalping. According to Marco Milella, first author of the study "this suggests that violence was not only related to raids and battles, but probably also due to specific, still mysterious, rituals involving the killing of humans and the collection of war trophies".
What do you suppose "traces of decapitation" means? Like, are they maybe missing their heads?
Anyway this is the second study I have seen showing disturbing levels of violence on the Iron Age steppe. Seems to have been a very rough place.
Fiddling While Oregon Burns
What can you say about this?
Early this year, looking to overcome the political stalemates that have long paralyzed decisions in the West around timber and wildfires, Gov. Kate Brown backed legislation to tackle the whole range of problems: thinning the forests, hiring more firefighters, establishing new requirements to make homes more fire-resistant and — looking to the future — a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gas emissions that would assure that Oregon was doing its part to combat climate change. “We must be prepared for the more voracious wildfire seasons to come,” Ms. Brown said.
Within weeks, though, the plans were dead. Republican lawmakers staged a walkout on the cap-and-trade proposal, and the bills that would have provided millions of dollars to prevent and suppress wildfires were left on the table.
Months later, the scenario everyone feared came to pass: A series of historic wildfires this month has wiped out communities and killed at least nine people in Oregon. . . .
The often competing interests between economic growth and environmental stewardship have been locked for decades in disagreements, including a battle over the spotted owl, which faced extinction in the 1980s as the industry cut through ancient forests along the coast. That dispute, which included lawsuits and legislation that drove a lasting decline in the timber industry, escalated to the point that President Bill Clinton had to intervene to strike a solution that became the Northwest Forest Plan.
But some areas preserved for wildlife and recreation have sprouted robust, combustible trees and underbrush, and the risk of wildfires has continued to grow.
Some of the people interviewed by the Times were optimistic that the terrible fires will drive the legislature to adopt at least some of these measures, but on the other hand, who knows. There's an election around the corner.
Friday, September 18, 2020
Camille Flammarion: the Scientist who Wanted to Believe
If you ever wondered where this image came from, I can tell you: it's from an 1888 book called L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire by a French astronomer named Nicolas Camille Flammarion (1842-1925). The name of the artist is unrecorded, but Flammarion designed all the illustrations in his books, so I think we can consider him at least the co-creator. It represents, I think, his understanding of science as a way to see beyond the limits of our little world to the unimagined wonders just over the horizon.
Flammarion was a fascinating character, a scientist who straddled its boundaries in two directions. He was a great popularizer, author of many books and articles for a mass audience and for a while the publisher of a science magazine for the masses. He was also very interested in spiritualism, ghosts, and the like, which led eventually to his being more or less banned from serious scientific circles.
Flammarion's first famous book was published in 1862, when he was only 20. La Pluralité des Mondes Habitées (The Plurality of Habitable Worlds) considered which of the other planets might be inhabited, which intrigued Europeans of the day enough to sell a lot of copies. This launched Flammarion on his career and also made him the century's most famous explorer of the idea of aliens. He later wrote two more books on the same theme and also a novel told from the point of view of a living comet. It has to be said that while Flammarion had a lot of ideas, as a writer he was no match for his countryman Jules Verne.
Like many people of his time, Flammarion was fascinated by psychic phenomena and spiritual mediums. He wanted, it seems, to find scientific proof of spirits and the afterlife. He wanted to believe. But he found, like many of his own time and since, that without some kind of scientific evidence he simply could not. He wrote:
It is by the scientific method alone that we may make progress in the search for truth. Religious belief must not take the place of impartial analysis. We must be constantly on our guard against illusions.
He carried out study after study of ghosts, séances, telepathy, and more. He made a two-year long study of automatic writing, which many thought was dictated by spirits. After working with a dozen of the most famous practitioners in Europe he concluded, "the subconscious mind is the explanation and there is no evidence for the spirit hypothesis." After years of studying mediums he complained, "It is infinitely to be regretted that we cannot trust the loyalty of mediums. They almost always cheat."
Over the years he accumulated many cases of phenomena that he thought could not be explained materially, and he argued that science ought to take this seriously. But he was never able to convince himself that these random anomalies proved the existence of spirits or life after death:
This is very far from being demonstrated. The innumerable observations which I have collected during more than forty years all prove to me the contrary. No satisfactory identification has been made. The communications obtained have always seemed to proceed from the mentality of the group, or when they are heterogeneous, from spirits of an incomprehensible nature. The being evoked soon vanishes when one insists on pushing him to the wall and having the heart out of his mystery. That souls survive the destruction of the body I have not the shadow of a doubt. But that they manifest themselves by the processes employed in séances the experimental method has not yet given us absolute proof. I add that this hypothesis is not at all likely. If the souls of the dead are about us, upon our planet, the invisible population would increase at the rate of 100,000 a day, about 36 millions a year, 3 billions 620 millions in a century, 36 billions in ten centuries, etc.—unless we admit re-incarnations upon the earth itself. How many times do apparitions or manifestations occur? When illusions, auto-suggestions, hallucinations are eliminated what remains? Scarcely anything. Such an exceptional rarity as this pleads against the reality of apparitions.
For his trouble he ended up shunned by both spiritual believers, who thought him a disruptive skeptic, and scientists, who thought him a crank.
Flammarion dreamed of wonderful worlds: of planets populated by alien beings, of planes filled with spirits, of secret knowledge that would be revealed by some combination of scientific rigor and spiritual practice. He never found them, but to some extent he did imagine them, and through his stories and the engravings he commissioned he shared those visions with the rest of us.
The Baboon Police
Baboons were Trained in Ancient Egypt to Catch Criminals
The most surprising use for trained baboons was as police animals. Hieroglyphs and artwork has survived the ages depicting Egyptian authorities using baboons on leashes to apprehend criminals, in much the way modern police would use a dog. One shocking bit of classical Egyptian artwork depicts authorities unleashing a baboon on a thief in a marketplace, and the criminal begging them to call the animal off as it bites his leg.
Now there's something I did not know.
Links 18 September 2020
Video of Thai farmers herding hundreds of ducks.
Thursday, September 17, 2020
Bram Stoker's Sources
This list of the books Bram Stoker mentions in his notes for Dracula has been making its way around the internet:
Folklore and Superstition
The Book of Were-Wolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition by Sabine Baring-Gould (1865)
Credulities Past and Present by William Jones (1880)
Curious Myths of the Middle Ages by Sabine Baring-Gould (1877)
The Devil: His Origin, Greatness and Decadence by Rev. Albert Réville (1871)
The Folk-Tales of the Magyars by Rev. William Henry Jones and Lewis L. Kropf (1889)
Legends and Superstitions of the Sea and of Sailors — In All Lands and at All Times by Fletcher S. Bassett (1879)
On Superstitions connected with the History and Practice of Medicine and Surgery (1844) by Thomas Joseph Pettigrew
The Origin of Primitive Superstitions: And Their Development into the Worship of Spirits and the Doctrine of Spiritual Agency among the Aborigines of America by Rushton M. Dorman (1881)
Sea Fables Explained by Henry W. Lee (1883)
Sea Monsters Unmasked by Henry W. Lee (1883)
Traité des superstitions qui regardent les sacraments (1700-04) by Jean-Baptiste Thiers
Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard (1885)
Dreams, Sleep, and Mesmerism
The Natural and the Supernatural: Or, Man — Physical, Apparitional and Spiritual by John Jones (1861)
On the Truths contained in Popular Superstitions – with an Account of Mesmerism by Herbert Mayo (1851)
Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Vulgar Errors by Sir Thomas Browne (1646)
The Other World: Or, Glimpses of the Supernatural — Being Facts, Records and Traditions by Rev. Frederick George Lee (1875)
Religio Medici or The Religion of a Doctor by Sir Thomas Browne (1646)
The Theory of Dreams (1808) by Robert Gray and John Ferriar
Transylvania and Other Regions
An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia: with various Political Observations Relating to Them (1820) by William Wilkinson
Germany, Present and Past (1879) by Sabine Baring-Gould
The Golden Chersonese by Isabella L. Bird (1883)
Magyarland: Being the Narrative of our Travels through the Highlands and Lowlands of Hungary by Nina Elizabeth Mazuchelli (1881)
On the Track of the Crescent: Erratic Notes from the Piraeus to Pesth by Major E. C. Johnson (1885)
Roumania: Past and Present by James Samuelson (1881)
Round About the Carpathians by Andrew F. Crosse (1878)
A Tarantasse Journey Through Eastern Russia in the Autumn of 1856 by W. A. Spottiswoode (1857)
Transylvania: Its Products and its People by Charles Boner (1865)
Anecdotes of Habits and Instincts of Birds, Reptiles and Fishes by Sarah Lee (1853)
The Birds of Transylvania by Charles A. Danford and John A. Harvie-Brown (1875)
Fishery Barometer Manual by Robert Henry Scott (1887)
History and Mystery of Precious Stones by William Jones (1880)
Superstition and Force — Essays on The Wager of Law, The Wager of Battle, The Ordeal and Torture by Henry Charles Lea (1878)
A Whitby Glossary by Francis Kildale Robinson (1876)
Plus there are these texts in the London Library that have Stoker's annotations in them:L'Antiquité at au Moyen Age by Alfred Maury (1860)
Narratives of Sorcery and Magic by Thomas Wright (1851)
Things not Generally Known. Popular Errors Explained, John Timbs (1858)
This list of sources is a good example of what I wrote about before, how the imaginations of 19th-century Europeans were stimulated by the vast array of knowledge they could easily access about the world.
On a more personal level it made me start thinking about all the books that influenced my own novel.
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Who's Holding Up Best
From a recent study, via Marginal Revolutions:
Fans of horror films exhibit less psychological distress during COVID-19.
Fans of “prepper” films reported being more prepared for the pandemic.
Morbidly curious people exhibit greater positive resilience during COVID-19.
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Bill Barr's Autocratic Theology
At Slate, Dahlia Lithwick interviews Donald Ayer, longtime Republican and Deputy Attorney General under George H.W. Bush, about the views of Attorney General Bill Barr:
You’ve known Bill Barr for a long time. And I think you’ve said that he took this job because there are things he wants to get done, that he has a fully realized worldview, both in terms of his view of the unitary executive, presidential power, an unbounded presidency. That’s part of it. There is another part of his worldview, which I think is a quasi-religious worldview. And I wondered if you’d be willing to talk about that a little.
I’ve spent some time lately reading some of the things he has written. He is a strong, believing Catholic, and that’s obviously a personal thing for him. And I don’t have any comment on that obviously. But one of the things that’s apparent when you read his various writings on the subject of executive power—the narrative he tells there for the country relating to religious belief is very similar and very parallel to his sense with regard to executive power. On executive power, he concocts a very wrong view that the founders actually intended the president to be a virtual autocrat. Never mind what you learned in eighth grade or high school about separation of powers and all of these ways that the different branches check each other, the checks and balances and all of that. Bill Barr’s view is that the founders intended a very strong executive who would be essentially immune from a whole variety of things, and that that reality was the reality in our country for the first almost 200 years. Well, that’s just utter hogwash.
But the key point is that in the ‘60s, or maybe the ‘70s, as he said, accelerating after Watergate, that all just went down the drain and we started attacking the executive in various ways. This is basically backward. The power of the president has gone into its ascendancy in the past 50 years. But that’s his view on that. And his personal role that he’s assigned himself is to restore that autocratic vision of the president.
Well, the same thing, on parallel way, is true of his views on religion. He sees the founders as people who were very concerned that Americans would remain a pious country of churchgoers whose strict religious moral views would govern them. And I guess he thinks that was the dominant story in our country, even though everyone else knows that our country was essentially created as a result of the rationalism, the enlightenment, the rise of empiricism and understanding of the world as a real physical place that had rules of its own.
But Barr sees the founders as focused overwhelmingly on piety and adherence to traditional Christian morals. And again, on a parallel with his views on autocracy, gosh, golly, gee, that went to hell in a hand basket starting in the ‘60s, with all the things that happened in the ‘60s and things that have happened since. And so again, his role that he sees for himself is to restore that. And a good microcosm of that, if you want to just think of one image, is Bill Barr ordering federal law enforcement people into Lafayette Park to clear out the park, so the president, the most vulgar, irreligious national leader we have ever had, could stride across Lafayette Park with a Bible in his hand and wave it at the camera in front of St. John’s Church.
So Barr has got this role for himself as a restorer of these worlds that never were. And essentially the only way he can perform that mission is by keeping Donald Trump happy. So that’s what we’re seeing now. We’re seeing him do whatever it takes to get Trump reelected and to keep Trump thinking that Barr is the guy who he needs to help him accomplish all this.
Sometimes I despair. We like to think if we educate people enough, they will have some understanding of how things are and how they used to be. But Bill Barr is by the usual definition very well educated, and quite well read in the history of the US and its founding, but he is utterly and completely wrong about every historical question that matters to him. We simply can't expect the average American to be as well read as Barr is on these subjects; so how can we expect anyone to have a clue about American history and what it means now?
Between those on the left who think the American Revolution was really a defense of slavery, and those on the right who think it was all about Christianity or autocracy, where are we? If the level of knowledge that Bill Barr has about the past is not enough to change his mind about it, is there any way to change anyone's mind?
Not Excited about Life on Venus
Lots of buzz in the news this week about two scientific papers arguing there must be life on Venus. They base their conclusion on the discovery of phosphine (PH3) in the Venusian clouds. Which I admit is pretty cool. Phosphine seems to be a byproduct of respiration among some bacteria, so it might be a sign of life. These scientists go on to say that no known inorganic process could produce it outside the titanic pressures of Jupiter's inner atmosphere, so there must be life on Venus.
Maybe. But since we understand Venus' strange atmosphere only a little, and its conditions are very difficult to replicate on earth, who knows? Claims that methane and oxygen found on Mars are evidence of Martian life have not exactly panned out, and incidentally nobody knows what made those gases, either.
I despise scientific arguments that go, "I can't think of any other explanation, so it must be alien life." For one thing we still don't even understand how or why bacteria on Earth produce phosphine, so it might turn out to be a fairly simple reaction,
I support dreaming up some way to study the Venusian clouds and sending a spacecraft to do it, but I am not optimistic that it will find life. I don't think we understand nearly enough about the universe for this sort of leaping to conclusions.
Monday, September 14, 2020
Orcas Gone Mad
Scientists have been left baffled by incidents of orcas ramming sailing boats along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts.
In the last two months, from southern to northern Spain, sailors have sent distress calls after worrying encounters. Two boats lost part of their rudders, at least one crew member suffered bruising from the impact of the ramming, and several boats sustained serious damage.
The latest incident occurred on Friday afternoon just off A Coruña, on the northern coast of Spain. Halcyon Yachts was taking a 36-ft boat to the UK when an orca rammed its stern at least 15 times, according to Pete Green, the company’s managing director. The boat lost steering and was towed into port to assess damage.
Around the same time there were radio warnings of orca sightings 70 miles south, at Vigo, near the site of at least two recent collisions. On 30 August, a French-flagged vessel radioed the coastguard to say it was “under attack” from killer whales. Later that day, a Spanish naval yacht, Mirfak, lost part of its rudder after an encounter with orcas under the stern.
In one instance, a 46-foot delivery boat was surrounded by nine orcas off Cape Trafalgar in Spain. The whales, that can weight up to six tons, rammed the boat continuously for one hour, causing it to spin 180 degrees and the engine to shut down, according to crew member Victoria Morris.
Morris told the Observer that the attack, which happened on July 28, felt "totally orchestrated."
"The noise was really scary. They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat," Morris said. "And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other. It was so loud that we had to shout."
The orca pod had left by the time help arrived, but the boat still had to be towed to a nearby town called Barbate. Crew members later found the rudder missing its bottom layers and teeth marks along the underside of the ship.
Most likely this has all been done by one pod, but what if the rebellion spreads?
A Noble Woman of Medieval Korea
Images from a grave recently excavated in Gyeongyu, South Korea, dating to the Silla Kingdom, 7th-8th century CE. That's some fabulous archaeological skill right there, to expose all those tiny beads and the gold pieces of the earrings without removing them. The headpiece is gilt bronze.
As are the shoes. Which makes me wonder; did this woman actually walk around in bronze shoes, or was this just for the funeral?
Grave goods. If you want even bigger images, the History Blog has them.
Sunday, September 13, 2020
Why the Fires?
Why is the US west burning? Everybody is saying "climate change," but that is only partly right. The basic reality is that dry forests burn. If you don't let small fires reduce the amount of fuel available, old wood builds up until any fire will be catastrophic. Scientists understand this perfectly well. They have pressured the federal and state governments to stop fighting all fires and to use controlled burns to reduce fuel. But this, it turns out, is really hard to do, because nobody like fires and any plan to start one intentionally is met by angry opposition.
Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres. The state passed a few new laws in 2018 designed to facilitate more intentional burning. But few are optimistic this, alone, will lead to significant change. We live with a deathly backlog. In February 2020, Nature Sustainability published this terrifying conclusion: California would need to burn 20 million acres — an area about the size of Maine — to restabilize in terms of fire. . . .
Carl Skinner, another Cassandra, who started firefighting in Lassen County in 1968 and who retired in 2014 after 42 years managing and researching fire for the U.S. Forest Service, sounded profoundly, existentially tired. “We’ve been talking about how this is where we were headed for decades.”
“It’s painful,” said Craig Thomas, director of the Fire Restoration Group. He, too, has been having the fire Cassandra conversation for 30 years. He’s not that hopeful, unless there’s a power change. “Until different people own the calculator or say how the buttons get pushed, it’s going to stay that way.”
A six-word California fire ecology primer: The state is in the hole.
A seventy-word primer: We dug ourselves into a deep, dangerous fuel imbalance due to one simple fact. We live in a Mediterranean climate that’s designed to burn, and we’ve prevented it from burning anywhere close to enough for well over a hundred years. Now climate change has made it hotter and drier than ever before, and the fire we’ve been forestalling is going to happen, fast, whether we plan for it or not.
Megafires, like the ones that have ripped this week through 1 million acres (so far), will continue to erupt until we’ve flared off our stockpiled fuels. No way around that.
When I reached Malcolm North, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service who is based in Mammoth, California, and asked if there was any meaningful scientific dissent to the idea that we need to do more controlled burning, he said, “None that I know of.”
Part of the problem is that setting fires is inherently risky, and our systems are set up to avoid risk. With so many people living in the forests, a fire that gets even a little out of control could destroy homes and endanger lives, and who wants to take responsibility for that?
Burn bosses in California can more easily be held liable than their peers in some other states if the wind comes up and their burn goes awry. At the same time, California burn bosses typically suffer no consequences for deciding not to light. No promotion will be missed, no red flags rise. “There’s always extra political risk to a fire going bad,” Beasley said. “So whenever anything comes up, people say, OK, that’s it. We’re gonna put all the fires out.”
Some of the experts cited in this article talk about wanting to burn a million acres a year, but when asked how that might happen, they are stumped. One suggested that if a fire destroyed San Diego, that might be enough. But then again it might not.
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Tim Robinson, “Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage”
Tim Robinson’s 1986 book about Aran has been perfect for me in this crazy time: calm, soothing, richly interesting, rather sad but in a slow, reflective, elegiac way. Aran is the largest of three limestone islands off Ireland’s west coast, long fabled as the most unspoiled bit of old Erin. When Robinson, an English writer, arrived at Aran in 1972 the place was already becoming what it is today, a tourist spot for those who really want to get away from it all. But Robinson spoke Irish and had a knack for getting old men to talk to him, so he was able to record a hoard of stories about Aran’s past that delightfully enriches his account of walking the island’s stony shores.
Robinson actually wrote two books about Aran, of which Pilgrimage is the first. Pilgrimage traces the circumference of the island, an imagined walk all the way around its shores. Labyrinth, the second volume, explores the interior, and since I’ve already ordered it I imagine I’ll be reviewing it later. Aran (or Inishmore, as it is called by people who apply the name Aran to the whole island chain) is a long, narrow island with essentially two sides. The southern side faces the Atlantic and is exposed to its fearful storms; nobody lives there, and much of the coast is daunting cliffs as much as 300 feet (90 m) tall. Everyone lives on the northern, protected side where the coast is a series of bays, headlands, and shingle beaches. So the book is divided into two parts, one that describes the unpeopled cliffs and the other the harbors and seaweed beds of the settled side.
As Robinson walks his readers around the island he tells us about the geology of this limestone rock, and then the names of each feature, and then the stories behind the names. Every few hundred yards he has a longer story about some particular bay, cliff, or beach, or some fascinating bit of island history. He starts at the east end of the island and almost immediately we get this:
In the last century emigrant ships sailing out of Galway for America used to come through Sunda Ghriora [the strait east of Aran] and sometimes had to wait for days for a favourable wind. Then if there were Aran people on board their relatives and friends who had already said goodbye to them and may even have held a wake for them, knowing that in most cases the parting was forever, were given another sight of them by this chance that was perhaps more cruel than kind, but at a distance that must have made it an unreal, wordless and ghostly reappearance. The way by which the bereaved came down to the shore to wave and weep is a little valley called Gleann na nDeor. This phrase is the Irish equivalent of the old preachers’ platitude for this world as a place of sorrow, the “vale of tears.” (33)
Then around to the southern shore of the island and the great cliffs. As Robinson writes, an ordinary map all but ignores a cliff, making it a mere line between land and sea, but the cliffs of Aran have their own geography, and their own history, too. The cliff face “was a wide province of the islanders’ mental landscape, a theatre of anecdote, tradition, boast and dream ” (63).
These cliffs have ledges in them, because the thick layers of limestone that make them up are separated by thin layers of softer clay-stone that erode more quickly, creating slots in the cliff face. In late spring those ledges are covered with seabird nests, which the locals used to raid for feathers, eggs, and meat. This was done by lowering the "cliff man" 100 or 200 feet down on a dodgy rope – in the dark, because the nests had to be raided at night – until he found the ledge. He would then crawl along the ledge feeling for nests, trying to catch the birds sleeping and strangle them before they could cry out and warn the others. The birds and eggs were stuffed into sacks, and when the cliff man could carry no more he would tug on the rope and be pulled up. Nobody knows how old this practice was, but it was first recorded by outsiders in the famine years, and it died out during World War II. The cliff men were local heroes, and in the 1970s people still remembered the most famous ones well and knew many stories about their heroics and their phlegmatic attitude toward danger.
Some of the bays along this shore have names related to wrecking, like Bay of the Timber or Bay of the Pine Boards:
Many of the old homes of the islands have rafters cut from beams washed ashore and carried off and hidden before the coastguards or the landlords’ agent got wind of them, and even today islanders keep an eye out for such prizes. Recently an elderly and, as I had thought, frail couple, neighbours of ours in the west of the island, managed to drag a thick tree trunk eighteen feet long up a steep shingle bank to where they could bring a cart for it. When I made some remark about this feat the old lady replied, “Ni raibh ann ach pleisiur!” — “It was nothing but a pleasure!” (40)
The most famous feature of Aran’s coast is the great fort known as Dun Oengus. Alas, nobody really knows how old this is, who lived here, or why it was built, and Robinson makes even the tentative dates and theories I have seen elsewhere seem like pure guesswork. Robinson does dismiss the notion that the fort was once round but lost half its structure to the sea; such a great fall of rock, he says, would still be piled around the base of the cliff, since it would have taken 10,000 years for the waves to wash it away, and since there is no such pile there has been no major collapse of this cliff since the Ice Age. Besides there are two other forts in these islands that back up against the sea, although both of the others are on peninsulas. Robinson fills out his chapter on the fort by regaling the reader with all the theories that have been advanced by every sort of historian and madman over the years, especially those concerning the Fir Bolgs. The traditional history of Ireland, as written down by medieval monks, tells of a series of invasions by people who each displaced the previous inhabitants. The Irish, ancestors of the current inhabitants, appear in this narrative as the Milesians, and the people they drove out were called the Fir Bolgs. Nineteenth-century antiquarians decided that Aran must have been the last refuge of the Fir Bolgs, and Dun Oengus their last stronghold, their backs up against the cliffs of the sea.
I could go on and on, but I have to limit myself, so as to leave you reasons to pick up this book yourself. So we go around the island to the north, inhabited side.
Aran's economy, such as it was, depended on three things: fishing, raising potatoes in soil made out of sand and seaweed, and kelping. Kelping meant the gathering of seaweed to burn for the ash, which lasted on Aran from the early 1700s to 1948. Kelp ash was a valuable commodity as a feed stock for Britain's developing chemical industry, which consumed thousands of tons of ash every year for making soap, gunpower, and a hundred other things. Kelping therefore became a major industry on all of Britain's rocky shores but especially in the Scottish highlands and the west of Ireland.
Fishing and nest raiding were both masculine pursuits, but kelping was done by whole families, so it was a big part of the Aran experience. It was backbreaking labor, cutting the seaweed in waist deep water, carrying it up to the shore, a race because it could only be done at low tide three or four days a month. Then it had to dry, and rain at the wrong time could ruin it. Then it was burned in hand-built rock kilns, a process that took 36 hours of constant tending. Then it was sold to an agent who tested it for its iodine content and, the islanders thought, regularly cheated them. Robinson passes on a little rhyme sung for him by an old woman, which he translates; the place names are all rocky points where kelp was gathered and burned:
Dun an Ni broke my heart;
Beal a Chalaidh took my life;
Leic Mhor put me under the earth.
Now all of that is over, and the locals live half off subsidies and half off tourists; not that they don't still fish and raise potatoes in gardens they build out of sand and seaweed, but that is no longer the economic center. They have health care, and schools, and they don't have to worry about starving. And they are mostly just like everyone else.
If you want to get away from our sad and crazy nation, but not to someplace too exciting or disturbing, and I cannot recommend any journey more than following Tim Robinson to Aran.
Robinson's wonderful map of the island is here. In 1934 Robert Flaherty (whose first film was Nanook of the North) made a film about life on Aran called Man of Aran that is still quite famous; you can watch the whole thing on YouTube.
Friday, September 11, 2020
America in this Moment
Officials dealing with the catastrophic fires on the West Coast have had to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by antifascist activists, publicly pleading that people verify information before sharing it.
Despite their efforts, misinformation about the origin of the fires continues to spread on Facebook and Twitter.
Several law enforcement agencies in Oregon said they had been flooded with inquiries about rumors that activists were responsible. On Thursday, several journalists reporting on fires near the city of Molalla, Ore., said they had been confronted by a group of armed people who were worried about unverified reports of arsonists in the area.
The rumors appear to have started on Wednesday night, after the Portland Police Bureau warned people on Twitter about the risk of fire during demonstrations. But there is no evidence that activists have deliberately set fires.
“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry.
Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon did announce on Thursday that the Almeda Fire, which incinerated neighborhoods and is linked to two deaths, may have been deliberately set. No suspects were publicly identified, but the Ashland police chief told The Oregonian that no information pointed toward the loose collective of antifascist activists known as antifa.
“One thing I can say is that the rumor it was set by Antifa is 100% false information,” Chief Tighe O’Meara told the newspaper in an email.
Links 11 September 2020
Laid off from their jobs in a Japanese restaurant, Rwandan mothers have found new work babysitting Japanese kids over Zoom.
The real America: the 24 Hours of Lemons car race, which you can only enter with a car that cost you less than $500 and still has the engine and power train it came with. In the news because the race has started a separate category for electric vehicles. (NY Times)
Australia's changing relationship with China; after decades of courting China to pursue trade, Australia is distancing itself over concerns about its sovereignty.
Hannah Bullen-Ryner makes ephemeral bird "paintings" out of leaves, flowers, and seeds she finds in the forest.
The Album Amicorum, a sort of illustrated signature collection, of international art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578-1647).
In France, debate erupts over the word ensauvagement. (NY Times)
Trying to make fitness trackers work for people in wheelchairs.
Have white people gentrified Black Lives Matter?
History and Hedgehogs at Nea Paphos on Cyprus.
NY Times piece on how the Chinese government uses WeChat to monitor and influence conversation among Chinese people all over the world. I think Trump is right and the US should ban it.
Sad NY Times piece about suicide in rural India, which never mentions what is really happening: peasant life is simply not compatible with modernity, and so modernization always involves the destruction of the peasantry. The best-case scenario is that 90 percent move to the cities.
Study Suggests Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Was Responsible for 19% of August COVID-19 Cases
Anxious Americans are grinding their teeth so much dentists are seeing an "epidemic of fractured teeth" (NY Times)
Super-recognizers, who can recognize and remember faces from a tiny glimpse, are now working for the police. I guess they must be better than software, so far.
In despair about the American police, violent and utterly separated from the communities they are supposed to serve? Then read about Brazil and consider how much worse it could be. (NY Times)
The anti-bourgeois: a glimpse into the lives of Americans who live in RVs and travel around the country from job to job, campground to campground. (Washington Post)
Mothers for QAnon (NY Times)
Using AlphaZero to test chess variants, in pursuit of a more "beautiful" game
Thursday, September 10, 2020
The Coffin Confessor
Via Tyler Cowen, an interesting kind of business has made the news in Australia:
Bill Edgar has, in his own words, “no respect for the living”. Instead, his loyalty is to the newly departed clients who hire Mr Edgar — known as “the coffin confessor” — to carry out their wishes from beyond the grave.
Mr Edgar runs a business in which, for $10,000, he is engaged by people “knocking on death’s door” to go to their funerals or gravesides and reveal the secrets they want their loved ones to know.
“They’ve got to have a voice and I lend my voice for them,” Mr Edgar said.
Mr Edgar, a Gold Coast private investigator, said the idea for his graveside hustle came when he was working for a terminally ill man.
“We got on to the topic of dying and death and he said he’d like to do something,” Mr Edgar said.
“I said, ‘Well, I could always crash your funeral for you’,” and a few weeks later the man called and took Mr Edgar up on his offer and a business was born.
In almost two years he has “crashed” 22 funerals and graveside events, spilling the tightly-held secrets of his clients who pay a flat fee of $10,000 for his service. . . .
In the case of his very first client Mr Edgar said he was instructed to interrupt the man’s best friend when he was delivering the eulogy.
“I was to tell the best mate to sit down and shut up,” he said. “He knew the best mate had been trying to have an affair with his wife.”
“I also had to ask three mourners to stand up and to please leave the service and if they didn’t I was to escort them out.
“My client didn’t want them at his funeral and, like he said, it is his funeral and he wants to leave how he wanted to leave, not on somebody else’s terms.”
Despite the confronting nature of his job, Mr Edgar said “once you get the crowd on your side, you’re pretty right” because mourners were keen to know what was left unsaid.