Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Poison Book

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

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

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

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

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

Aconitum napellus, monkshood, which is another deadly poison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Might-Have-Beens

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

— Hugh Trevor Roper

Pretty Much What I Expected

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

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

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

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

The Golden Altar of Sahl Church, Denmark

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Guernsey Medieval Porpoise Burial

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

They told reporters that they had never seen anything like it, but that's just because they're sufficiently up on the weird side notes of British archaeology.

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

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

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

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

Morning Glories

IKEA Humans

Samuel Biagetti in Jacobin, pondering the rootless modern liberal:
Jennifer and Jason are members of the upper middle class, living off their smarts and social connections rather than manual work. They live in the Sun Belt, in some newly gentrifying neighborhood of Queens, or in its equivalent in Montreal or Melbourne. They have college degrees and, even more importantly, college friends, which help to pull them up the slippery slope of middle-class employment. They are part of a scrambled white-collar workforce, drawn from all parts of the country and abroad, a lumpenbourgeoisie squeezing itself into selected wards of a few expensive cities. They follow trends in food, and music, and long-form television. Their politics are probably (but not definitely) liberal.
In the tradition of 19th-century social commentary, Biagetti considers Jennifer and Jason through the lens of their furniture, which is of course from IKEA:
Still, there is a good chance that Jennifer and Jason actually like their IKEA dressers, and prefer them to the old oak chest that their grandparents tried to foist on them. Indeed, the extraordinary popularity of IKEA testifies not only to its convenience but to its ability to appeal to the middle-class self-image. Jennifer and Jason are drawn to IKEA because it reflects who they are: they too are modern, movable, and interchangeable, their wants satisfiable in any neighborhood with a food co-op and a coffee shop. More fundamentally, Jennifer and Jason are untraceable, a “composite material” made from numberless scraps and pieces. They have a long catalog of home towns, and their accents are NPR neutral. They can probably rattle off the various nationalities in their family trees — Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, and Jewish, maybe some Venezuelan or Honduran for a little color. From these backgrounds they retain no more than a humorous word or phrase, a recipe, or an Ellis Island anecdote, if that. They grew up amidst a scramble of white-collar professionals and went to college with a scramble of white-collar professionals’ kids. Their values are defined mainly by mass media, their tastes adorably quirky but never straying too far from their peers’, and like the IKEA furniture that they buy in boxes, they too cut themselves into manageable, packaged pieces and market themselves online. They are probably “spiritual but not religious.” They have no pattern or model of life that bears any relation to the past before the internet. For all intents and purposes, they sprang up de novo in the modern city.
Some people would be tempted to call J and J “cosmopolitan,” but, says Biagetti, that doesn't really fit, because they actually live in a closed world and avoid interacting with people different from themselves:
Therefore, to be precise, the class of people of whom I am speaking are “cosmopolitan” neither in the idealized nor in the demonized sense of the word. They neither bridge deep social differences in search of the best in human experience, nor debase themselves with exotic foreign pleasures. Rather, they have no concept of foreignness at all, because they have no native traditions against which to compare. Indeed, the very idea of a life shaped by inherited custom is alien to our young couple. When Jennifer and Jason try to choose a restaurant for dinner, one of them invariably complains, “I don’t want Italian, because I had Italian last night.” It does not occur to them that in Italy, most people have Italian every night. For Jennifer and Jason, cuisines, musical styles, meditative practices, and other long-developed customs are not threads in a comprehensive or enduring way of life, but accessories like cheap sunglasses, to be casually picked up and discarded from day to day. Unmoored, undefined, and unaware of any other way of being, Jennifer and Jason are no one. They are the living equivalents of the particle board that makes up the IKEA dressers and IKEA nightstands next to their IKEA beds. In short, they are IKEA humans.

Of course, many readers might object that I am being too hard on Jennifer and Jason: what is wrong with casting off the burdens of hidebound traditions and living in the present? Some will point out the tolerant attitudes of young college-educated Westerners, who are less racist and homophobic than their forebears. This is commendable, but an incomplete foundation on which to build an ethical life. If one is not attached to a way of life structured by inherited values and customs, then one is unlikely to be attached to anything at all. Jennifer and Jason illustrate this: life choices follow arbitrary taste, friends come and go, ties with family are thin, and superficial interactions (largely online) with peers fill the gap.
Biagetti's point seems to be partly political, that is, he thinks people like J and J voted for Clinton because their liberalism is something shallow and verbal, not anchored to any knowledge of lives unlike their own. Not promising material for Revolution.

But I think he genuinely worries that without an inherited culture in which to sink our roots, we are doomed to wither.

I suspect that is at base a self-portrait; from what I have learned Biagetti seems to be a product of the Maryland suburbs and various elite universities who keenly feels the lack of a tradition and an inherited identity. Some people are like that. Others would find even the 21st-century version of rootedness (meatloaf every Saturday, say) both horrifyingly dull and completely pointless. I was pointed to Biagett's article from a long discussion in which various posters said a lot of stuff about what "people" need and what makes "people" feel fulfilled, without any acknowledgment of how greatly people vary along this axis and just about every other.

Personally I find the assertion that without inherited identity we are "no one" to be false and rather irritating. I've never had any trouble feeling quite certain who I am, despite my weakly rooted existence and taste for exotic food. It has never been established that people in traditional communities are happier than rootless moderns; their lives avoid certain issues that we wrestle with, but only by replacing them with an equally hard set of problems. They have ready-made identities and get rewarded with respect and status for doing the expected, traditional thing, but on the other hand they can't escape from ancient feuds or neighbors they hate, they may end up stuck doing work for which they are completely unsuited, and things are awfully dull. Quite a few of my contemporaries seem to believe this, or something like it:
The nice thing about traditional communities with well-defined norms is that they allow this strategy to work, mostly. There’s actually a script for you to follow, and if you follow it, you get rewarded and you fit in. You won’t blaze like a star or anything, and maybe there’ll be some strange inchoate yearnings deep in your soul that never get answered, but…if you can keep on the straight and narrow (whatever the local version of that may be), you’ll be more or less fine.
I disagree. In fact many people in traditional societies drink themselves into early graves, kill each other in brawls, or take any possible route of escape, whether that is joining the army or heading for the big city with nothing but the shirts on their backs. You may nearly paralyzed with anxiety with who you are or what you ought to be doing, but at least the Hatfields aren't stealing your cattle and threatening to shoot up your wedding.

No sort of life is easy; every path is hard in its own way.

Markets of Old London

Billingsgate Market, c. 1910.

Book sale in the Caledonian Road Market, c. 1910.

Covent Garden Market, 1910-1925.

Covent Garden Flower Market, c. 1910.

Leather Lane Market, 1936.

Leadenhall Market, Christmas 1935. More at Spitalfields Life.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Michael Reddick

These three images of the same charcoal drawing (the lower two are details) appeared on the Tumblr of the Cavin-Morris Gallery. I was so struck by them that I immediately searched for Michael Reddick, artist. This, from the Times in 1998, was pretty much the only thing I found:
To the Editor:

The art program of the Connecticut Prison Association is proud to have helped Raymond Materson and other talented prisoners get their starts as respected artists [ "From Scraps of Prison Cloth a Miniature World Grows," Dec. 11 ] . Other Connecticut prison artists, among them Michael Iovieno, Dominic Vincenzo and Michael Reddick, are also receiving national recognition.

The program provides art instruction, materials and exhibition opportunities to inmates throughout the state. Last year we worked with more than 300 prison artists, exhibited the work of 97 inmates in our annual show and published a journal.

SAMUEL MCKEEN CONNOR Art Program Coordinator, Connecticut Prison Association Hartford
The Cavin-Morris Gallery specializes in "Outsider Art," so I bet this is the same guy; art by a mysterious prisoner would be just their kind of thing. But what to you suppose has happened to Michael Reddick since then? Was he shanked in a dark hallway? Did confinement, in the end, sap his creative energy? Or could it be that he was released and found that he couldn't work on the outside?

150 Years of Hurricanes

Cool map by John Nelson; click to enlarge. A remarkably high percentage hit the Caribbean or the Philippines.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa by Thomas Heatherwick

London-based architect Thomas Heatherwick, took this old grain silo and carved it into a new museum. As you can see below, some of the geometry is quite striking. It was all done by subtraction; no new concrete was poured. Via This is Colossal.

Kim Jong-un on Trump

One great world leader to another:
A frightened dog barks louder. . . .

I am now thinking hard about what response he could have expected when he allowed such eccentric words to trip off his tongue.

Whatever Trump might have expected, he will face results beyond his expectation.

I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.
This would be fun if there weren't a chance, in my mind small but real, that this could end in war.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Maria Crocifissa della Concezione's Devilish Letter

The news from Italy:
For more than three centuries, scholars, codebreakers and occultists have been stumped by a cryptic letter written by a Benedictine nun who claimed it was dictated by the Devil himself.

According to legend, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione of the Palma di Montechiaro convent in southern Italy woke after a fainting spell on August 11, 1676 to find her face covered in ink. In one hand were several letters she had penned consisting of an indecipherable mix of symbols and languages.

Sister Maria and her sisters at the convent believed they had been delivered by a demon, but were unable to make any sense of the text.
But now Italian researchers claim to have deciphered 15 lines of the sole surviving letter using decryption software they found on the "dark web."
“Everything’s on there: drugs, prostitution, pedophilia and also programs used by intelligence services to decipher secret messages, like the one we used,” Ludum director Daniele Abate told Italian radio 105 Network.
The researchers did not let their dark software go in blind. They thought the text looked like a mix of characters from other languages that Sister Maria might have seen, so they programmed in Greek, Arabic, Latin, and the Runic alphabet. It seems that they were right, since their program was able to read much of the letter. Since the code was based on languages that Sister Maria was familiar with, they conclude that she wrote the letter herself.
The letter describes the relationship between humans, God and Satan in a rambling and inconsistent manner. In it, Sister Maria — or whoever had possessed her — encouraged God to abandon man and leave him in the clutches of the devil.

“God thinks he can free mortals, this system works for no one,” one of the translated lines reads. The text also describes God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as “dead weights.”

Abate said the contents of the letters made her suspect Sister Maria may have been suffering from schizophrenia.

“I personally believe that the nun had a good command of languages, which allowed her to invent the code, and may have suffered from a condition like schizophrenia, which made her imagine dialogues with the Devil,” she told The Times of Israel. “That has not stopped numerous interested Satanic sects contacting me since I published our findings.”
How long will it be before there is a book claiming that the letter is a true prophecy of the End Times? Maybe I should write it myself.

Motivation and Education

From an essay by Amanda Ripley on education in the Middle East, but with worldwide applicability:
Motivation is the dark matter of education. It’s everywhere but impossible to see. Motivation helps explain why some countries get impressive education results despite child poverty and lackluster teaching, while others get mediocre results despite universal health care and free iPads. When kids believe in school, as any teacher will tell you, everything gets easier. So it’s crucial to understand the motivation to learn and how it works in the lives of real boys and girls. Because the slow slipping away of boys’ interest in education represents a profound failure of schools and society. And the implications are universally terrible. All over the world, poorly educated men are more likely to be unemployed, to have physical- and mental-health problems, to commit acts of violence against their families, and to go to prison. They are less likely to marry but quite likely to father children.
This grabbed me hard, because I view my inability to get my sons to care about school as the biggest failure of my adult life.

Google Building its own City

Here's a project I would love to be part of:
Alphabet’s far-reaching ambitions are forcing it to grapple with an unusual challenge for a private company: how to run its own city.

Google’s parent company was working on a sweeping plan to build a city from the ground up, the executive in charge of its urban innovation business said on Tuesday, in an attempt to prove that a technologically-enabled urban environment can improve quality of life and reduce cities’ impact on the environment.

That would raise profound questions about the rules that govern such tech-centric places, particularly regarding how citizens’ data are collected, protected and used, conceded the head of Sidewalk Labs, the Alphabet subsidiary running the project.

“We actually want to build a new city, it is a district of the city, but one that is of sufficient size and scale that it can be a laboratory for innovation on an integrated basis,” said Dan Doctoroff, head of Sidewalk Labs, at a talk to the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

Sidewalk was “quite far along” in its search for a city with which to partner to build a testing ground for new approaches to transport, infrastructure and possibly even governance and social policy, he said.

Mr Doctoroff said he hoped the city could pioneer new approaches to data policies and even “set an example” for other places. “I think the real issues, which we have to confront as a society anyway, involve the use of data.”

“Having a place in which we actually aggressively wrestle with those issues, and we aggressively develop policies — that are the result of a really thoughtful conversation amongst privacy advocates, and members of the community, and the government as well as us, as sort of a sponsor of the place — I think that could set an example,” he said, in his most explicit comments to date on the planned project. 
What would be more fun than designing a city from the ground up? And this is refreshing:
Mr Doctoroff criticised Amazon’s request for tax incentives, saying that such incentives could hurt cities in the long term by undermining their tax base. He said that unlike Amazon, Sidewalk Labs was “not looking for huge handouts”.
On the other hand, it sounds like the price of living there will be that your whole life will be data mined as thoroughly as your online life is now.

Extended Childhood

Teenagers aren't so eager to grow up as they used to be:
…teenagers are increasingly delaying activities that had long been seen as rites of passage into adulthood. The study, published Tuesday in the journal Child Development, found that the percentage of adolescents in the U.S. who have a driver’s license, who have tried alcohol, who date, and who work for pay has plummeted since 1976, with the most precipitous decreases in the past decade.

The declines appeared across race, geographic, and socioeconomic lines, and in rural, urban, and suburban areas.

…Between 1976 and 1979, 86 percent of high school seniors had gone on a date; between 2010 and 2015 only 63 percent had, the study found. During the same period, the portion who had ever earned money from working plunged from 76 to 55 percent. And the portion who had tried alcohol plummeted from 93 percent between 1976 and 1979 to 67 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Teens have also reported a steady decline in sexual activity in recent decades, as the portion of high school students who have had sex fell from 54 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control statistics.
Thoughts about the underlying cause?

We joke at my house that our kids want to hang around and do nothing because we have made home too pleasant for them; we say, "If only we'd beaten them more, they'd want to get jobs and leave." But seriously, have video games, movies on demand, the internet and friendly parenting made it more fun to just be 16 without worrying about rushing into adulthood? Is watching Bojack Horseman while you post on Facebook more fun than driving to a vacant lot to drink beer?

How big a part does anxiety play? The percentage of teenagers who report serious anxiety has (depending on who you ask) doubled or tripled or quintupled. Is anxiety keeping them from going on dates or getting jobs? If so, is that related to gentle parenting and the joys of cocooning at home, or is it caused by something else?

Why don't teenagers want jobs? Could it be because they already feel rich enough? I mean, if you have a smart phone and a computer with a broadband hookup, what else do you need? And if this is true, does it mean there is something wrong with the economic statistics that say the median household is no better off than a generation ago?

Nikolaos Gyzis, Behold the Celestial Bridegroom

Greek artist Nikolaos Gyzis (1842-1901) spent the last the last 6 years of his life painting variations on a swirling orbit of angels and clouds, under the title Behold the Celestial Bridegroom. Via The Curve in the Line.