Author Archive for



17
May
15

pandemic

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The recent announcement that Liberia has become Ebola-free got me to thinking of the formative role pandemics have played in European history.

The Black Death (or Bubonic Plague) was one of the most devastating events in human history. It resulted in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people—or 30%–60% of Europe’s total population—and peaked in the years 1346–53.  It took 150 years for Europe’s population to recover.

The Black Death is thought to have originated in the arid plains of Central Asia, from whence it then traveled along the Silk Road, reaching the Crimea by 1343. It was most likely carried from there through the Black Sea and Mediterranean by Oriental rat fleas living on black rats which were regular passengers on merchant ships. Modern analysis of DNA from the remains of victims in northern and southern Europe indicates that the pathogen responsible was the Yersinia pestis bacterium, probably causing several forms of plague.

The aftermath of the plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. As an art history major when I was in college, I generally look at the visual record to see the impact of big events—which is why this post is once again a photo essay.

The plague repeatedly returned to haunt Europe and the Mediterranean throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. The plague was present somewhere in Europe in every year between 1346 and 1671, and occasionally until the 19th century.

The first North American plague epidemic was the San Francisco plague of 1900–04, followed by another outbreak in 1907–08. From 1944 through 1993, 362 cases of human plague were reported in the United States; approximately 90% occurred in four western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, and New Mexico. Plague was confirmed in the United States from 9 western states during 1995. Currently, 5 to 15 people in the United States are estimated to catch the disease each year—typically in western states; the disease is kept under control by the use of insecticides, antibiotics, and a plague vaccine.

However, the plague bacterium could develop drug-resistance and become a major health threat again.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Dead Can Dance performing “The Host of Seraphim”

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Weather Report

86° and Clear to Partly Cloudy

16
May
15

allen county find

mary todd lincoln wm mumler photo.

I just became aware of a curious photograph in the collection of the Allen County Museum in Fort Wayne IN. I have added it to my post “150th Anniversary,” even though it is likely a fake. Yet it is poignant testimony of how, following the death of a spouse, the survivor will sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to never let go.

The photograph is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln (1818—1882), the widow of our 16th president, taken a few years after his assassination by William H. Mumler (1832–1884), who was known as a ‘spirit photographer’ who worked in New York and Boston. This is considered to be one of his most famous photographs because it purports to show the “ghost” of the President.

P.T. Barnum claimed he hired Abraham Bogardus to fabricate this photo showing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. This picture was then tendered in evidence at Mumler’s trial for fraud to show how easy it was to forge spirit photographs. But Mumler was acquitted.

Paranormal researcher Melvyn Willin, in his book Ghosts Caught on Film, claims that the photo was taken around 1869, and that Mumler did not know that his sitter was Lincoln’s widow, instead believing her to be a “Mrs Tundall.” Willin goes on to say that Mumler did not discover who she was until after the photo was developed.

The College of Psychic Studies, referencing notes belonging to William Stainton Moses (who appeared in photographs by other spirit photographers), claims that the photo was taken in the early 1870s, that Mrs. Lincoln assumed the name of “Mrs. Lindall,” and that she had to be encouraged by Mumler’s wife (a medium) to identify the deceased President, her late husband, in the photo.

Although the image has been dismissed as a fraudulent double exposure, it has been widely circulated.

The death of Mrs. Lincoln’s son Tad in July 1871, following the death of two of her other sons and her husband, brought on an overpowering grief and depression. Her surviving son, Robert Lincoln, a rising young Chicago lawyer, was alarmed at his mother’s increasingly erratic behavior and, after she nearly jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, determined that she should be institutionalized. He committed her to a private asylum. Mrs. Lincoln eventually won her freedom and lived in Springfield IL with her sister Elizabeth, but she was so estranged from her son Robert that they did not reconcile until shortly before her death.

Mrs. Lincoln spent her final years in declining health but traveled and resided in Europe. She suffered from severe cataracts that reduced her eyesight; this condition may have contributed to her increasing susceptibility to falls. In 1879, she suffered spinal cord injuries in a fall from a stepladder, and later returned to Springfield. In 1882 she collapsed at her sister’s home and lapsed into a coma. She died at age 63.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Whitney Houston performing “I Will Always Love You”

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Weather Report

86° and Clear

15
May
15

ball and chain

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Juvenile court judge Mark Ciavarella won popularity in Pennsylvania for his no-nonsense approach to juvenile delinquency. He handed down long sentences for non-violent misdemeanors and convicted children for behaviors that were difficult to classify as crimes, including swearing in public and creating a fake MySpace page. Every child who entered his courtroom was shackled.

But when Ciavarella went on trial for accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks from the for-profit prisons where he sent far too many children, he appeared in court in a suit and tie. The US Supreme Court has consistently held that shackling adult defendants in handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains should be limited to the most extreme cases. The court, however, has remained silent on restraining juveniles.

Most states allow children to be shackled in juvenile court as a matter of routine. The vast majority of those children are accused of non-violent offenses like shoplifting and truancy. Most pose no flight risk or safety threat. And yet, they are made to look and feel like hardened criminals, led to court bound in metal chains. Psychologists say the humiliation and trauma of this experience has a lasting effect on children’s mental health. But most states have no laws or rules restricting juvenile shackling in court, and no state outright bans it, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center. The American Bar Association recently passed a resolution opposing the practice, calling it stigmatizing and a violation of due process. Neal Sonnett, a former assistant US attorney who signed onto that resolution, called the automatic shackling of juveniles “a national scandal.”

Recognizing the cruelty of this practice, South Carolina, Washington state and now the District of Columbia recently have placed limits on juvenile shackling. Several states–including Connecticut and Maine, are considering similar legislation. But the practice remains widespread. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that, except in extreme circumstances, shackling capital murder defendants violates their right to due process by undermining the presumption of innocence and prejudicing juries.  It boggles the mind that these protections are not extended to children, but no case involving a shackled juvenile—whose trials are typically in front of a judge instead of a jury — has reached the Supreme Court.

While I was filming the documentary “Kids for Cash,” a chronicle of Ciavarella’s misdeeds, children and parents told me about many horrors of the juvenile justice system. Our crew heard about 11-year-olds being separated from their families, about kids living in cockroach-infested cells, and about how those experiences led children into a spiral of depression and substance abuse. Still, it was recalling the shackling that made many break down on camera, parents and children alike. For most, it marked the beginning of their journey through a cruel justice system that left the children far more aggressive than before. The shackles sent a message of fear, that the system did not recognize them as children – or human beings for that matter. One young woman we interviewed, now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, links her illness to the experience of first being shackled as a child in Ciavarella’s courtroom. Amanda Lorah was 14 years old when she was shackled in handcuffs, legcuffs and a belly chain, and sentenced to five years’ incarceration for a school fight. “They kept me in the shackles until we got to the detention place. I felt like I was a grown adult going to a big jail,” she said. Her humiliation turned to fear, and then to hopelessness. The experienced convinced her that “I’m a really, really bad kid.”

Mental health experts and children’s advocates have warned that shackling does serious, and perhaps permanent, harm to children. The Child Welfare League of America recently denounced automatic juvenile shackling, noting that the experience can be especially damaging for children with a history of trauma, which is common in the juvenile justice system. “Feelings of shame and humiliation may inhibit positive self-development and productive community participation. Shackling doesn’t protect communities. It harms them,” the CWLA wrote in its policy statement. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry issued a similar policy statement in February, calling shackling of children “inconsistent with the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system.”

Proponents of shackling say the practice is necessary for the safety and security of the courtroom. Some describe it as a useful “scared straight” tactic. As Ciavarella once said, “I wanted them to be scared out of their minds. I don’t understand how that’s a bad thing.” But the kids I spoke to said being in shackles didn’t make them less likely to get into trouble. In fact, it made them feel like criminals. Those feelings play out in statistics: Children who feel they have been treated unfairly by the juvenile justice system, as many do when they are put in shackles, are more likely to reoffend. Recidivism rates for incarcerated kids are as high as 80% in some states.

If we can let murderers defend themselves in court unshackled, if we’re not afraid of men who have killed, then certainly we should not fear children who steal chewing gum. A 12-year-old is not going to overpower a bailiff and make a run for it. Treating ordinary adolescent behavior as a crime is typical in America today. Incarcerating children, though research shows that it has no rehabilitative value, is typical. Putting children in chains is typical. We ignore these injustices because they happen behind the closed doors of the juvenile court and we assume those kids are bad kids. But all the evidence–and common sense–tells us: There is no practical reason to shackle children.

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Robert May is the director of “Kids For Cash“, a documentary about a judicial scandal in a Pennsylvania juvenile court.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to XTC performing “Ball and Chain”

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Weather Report

83° and Clear

14
May
15

ing

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This is the first day of the fortnight (May 14-28) governed by the rune Ing. Pronounced as it is spelled, its phonetic value is “Ng” and it derives its name from the name of the god Ing, or Yngve—another name for Frey—the consort of the earth mother goddess of fertility and nurture. Ing is the god of male fertility who guards the hearth fire; consequently, the wisdom of this rune has long been concerned with the procreation and welfare of the family and clan.

Ing is an older name of the fertility god Frey, and is perhaps Frey’s true name. (Frey translates as “Lord” and may have come into common use in much the same way that people today speak of “the Lord” instead of saying “Jesus.”) Ing is the tutelary god of the Swedish people and divine ancestor of the Ynglinar, their old royal family, as well as the god of agriculture. Norse legend says Ing traveled around the Earth in a chariot, dispensing fertility and happiness to his people. This story was re-enacted ritually each year when the chief circumnavigated the “king’s circuit,” walking the boundaries of the settlement or homestead or traveling the circuit with a sacred wagon bearing an image of Ing with an erect phallus. This ritual ensured fertility to the land through deliberate action by the clan or tribal leaders to ensure the welfare and productivity of nature.

This idea of humans taking deliberate action is reflected linguistically in the English language where the sound of “ng” is found as a suffix modifying many words from the passive to the active tense. For example: ‘create’ becomes ‘creating,’ ‘build’ changes to ‘building,’ ‘love’ becomes ‘loving.’ These are but a few examples of how Ing can assert its fecund influence into even our everyday communication.

Father's KnotNot only is Ing a rune of invocation and action, it is a rune of filial responsibilities and devotion. What is created must be cared for, children especially. Today’s alarming epidemic of out-of-wedlock births, single-parent households, and abandoned and neglected children in America flies in the face of the core lesson of this rune. This is a design for a tattoo called the “father’s knot.” Here Ing is symbolically represented as being at the heart of the duties and responsibilities any self-respecting father must shoulder for the benefit of his family and future generations. The tattoo is intended to be placed on one’s chest over the heart.

The graphic centrality of this devotion to healthy family life is reinforced by Ing’s association with the hearth, which was traditionally the heart of a household. The hearth was the source of warmth and light through the cold, dark winter months. And as the place where meals were prepared, the hearth was a touchstone year-round for physical sustenance. Ing was not only seen as nurturing the home and those within it, but as calming domestic strife and uniting families with bonds of warmth and affection.4161fe3e175e479237c009fd433f15d0

A deeper symbolism in this rune can be seen when one considers that Ing is the combination of two Gyfu (X) runes stacked one on top of the other. Together they suggest an act of creation rendered through a mutual exchange of gifts—or, in a word, sex. Reflecting the rune’s polarity as both male and female, the diamond shape in the center of the rune has been said to pictographically represent a grain of wheat (male) or the birth canal or vagina (female, obviously).

The runestave’s design suggests that Ing is the rune of balanced prosperity which, if safeguarded, is capable of limitless extension. By reminding us to conform to the natural order of things, Ing can help us nurture growth while respecting and preserving sustainable natural and social environments.

Today’s Groove of the Day evokes two powerful images: the hearth and the cricket. One myth which I enjoy is that if a cricket is in your house, it is considered to be good luck. To remove or kill the cricket is said to bring misfortune to the homeowners. The cricket symbolizes happiness and good cheer; so its placement on the hearth denotes a happy house and clan.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Bryan Sutton performing “Cricket On The Hearth”

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Weather Report

80° and Cloudy

13
May
15

less confining

A settlement to a federal lawsuit will sharply limit the practice of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional facilities run by the state of Illinois, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois announced on Monday.

The settlement, which resolved a lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Illinois against the state, requires that the juvenile inmates spend at least eight hours a day outside their cells, said Adam Schwartz, a lawyer for the ACLU of Illinois. The new policy also requires that the inmates in isolation continue to receive education and mental health services.

“What we would say is that if you get to leave your room and be in the company of staff, and have the opportunity to talk to them for eight hours every single day, there’s no longer solitary confinement,” Mr. Schwartz said. “You don’t need to use solitary confinement to keep a prison safe. We think that these new rules are consistent with running a safe and rehabilitative prison system.”

The policy makes Illinois the latest state to enact a less restrictive approach to running its juvenile correctional facilities. Advocates for juveniles have long argued that solitary confinement is counterproductive, causing young people to suffer paranoia and depression. A review by the Department of Justice found that more than half of the suicides in juvenile prisons occur during solitary confinement.

Natalie J. Kraner, a lawyer with the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest, the pro bono arm of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler, said that Illinois had become one of 20 states to prohibit the use of solitary confinement as a punitive measure.

“I think we’re slowly moving away from it,” she said. “The country is recognizing the harms that come from the use of solitary confinement, especially when you’re talking about juveniles.”

The new Illinois rule applies to the six state-run juvenile facilities that house close to 700 youths; the smallest currently holds 24, and the largest 238. Solitary confinement may be used in certain situations if a youth is considered a threat to others, but only for short periods of time. The new confinement rule does not extend to the hundreds of other young people who are in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections. A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, Mike Theodore, said state officials were pleased with the settlement.

“We believe this policy is consistent with prevailing federal rules and national best practices,” Mr. Theodore said. “Department of Juvenile Justice staff have been working diligently over the last year to begin to comply with the new directive.”

Similar lawsuits have challenged juvenile solitary requirements in Mississippi, New York and Ohio. As a result, those states now require inmates to be out of their rooms for at least four hours a day. Some states allow confinement for only a few hours each day, but there are still nine states that place no limit on the amount of time that a juvenile may spend in punitive solitary confinement.

In September, the New York City Correction Department ended solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-old inmates at the Rikers Island complex. In January, the city agreed to extend the ban to all Rikers inmates 21 and younger. The United States attorney’s office in Manhattan had issued a report criticizing the department’s policies for teenage inmates, calling the use of solitary confinement “excessive and inappropriate.”

The ACLU of Illinois filed the lawsuit, R.J. v. Jones, in 2012 to improve conditions at the state’s juvenile facilities. The policy announced on Monday was approved in April by Judge Matthew F. Kennelly of Federal District Court.

Elizabeth Calvin, a senior advocate in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, said that solitary confinement was particularly damaging to juveniles. “I think there’s a growing recognition that putting children and youth into isolation is not a way to address the problems that these young people have,” she said. “If we’re talking about teens, we’re talking about individuals who are still developing, neurologically and socially. Those are tasks that require social interaction.”

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12
May
15

codpiece envy

anthony-weiner-crotch-shot

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Former Congressman Anthony Weiner isn’t the first politician to have had a fixation on his weiner. Today people with the same obsession must resort to sexting or to visiting gay websites, but there was a day when the rich and powerful were fairly open about their crotches.

A codpiece (from the Middle English “cod,” meaning “scrotum”) is a flap or pouch that attaches to the front of men’s trousers and usually accentuates the genital area. The codpiece was buttoned, or tied with strings, to whatever passed for a man’s breeches. In the early 14th century, this was men’s hose worn beneath doublets (or tight-fitting jackets), with nothing else in the way of underwear. At this time, men’s hose were two separate legs which left the genitals covered by a layer of linen. Originally, its purpose was only modesty, but it was soon discovered that the codpiece also functioned as a useful little purse for storing precious items like coins or jewels—and tradition claims this as the origin of the expression “a man’s family jewels.” Yet as time passed, codpieces became shaped and padded to emphasize rather than to conceal, reaching their peak of size and decoration in the 1540s before thankfully falling out of fashion fifty years later.

It was an important item of European clothing in the 15th and 16th centuries, but is still worn in the modern era in performance costumes for the theatre, by heavy metal musicians, in the leather subculture, and by some American presidents. The codpiece is not to be confused with the athletic cup, which protects in a similar fashion.

My son Henry says the codpiece has been replaced in modern culture by the installation of noisy exhaust systems in our vehicles, especially large pickup trucks. Maybe so.

This post is a shameless attempt to boost traffic, and should not be interpreted as pandering to your prurient interests or mine; the subject of codpieces came up recently on the radio (what is Dan listening to?!), and I just thought it so weird that it deserved a photo essay.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Miles Betterman performing “The Dickhead Song”

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Weather Report

72° Windy and Cloudy

11
May
15

abolish prison

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Abolish Prison

by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, The Week

May 7, 2015

Prison is just about the most astonishingly stupid and inhuman way to punish crime. It is inexplicable that it is the main crime punishment tool we use. Typically, the answer I get when I say this (which is often) is, “What’s your alternative?” The alternatives are plentiful, and easy, and all better. But, first, let me dwell a little bit on why prison is so awful.

Prison is an incredibly stupid way to fight crime because, as is well known, it is the enemy of rehabilitation. In prison, criminal gangs flourish. This means prison becomes a graduate school for crime, a facility for turning mediocre criminals into hardened ones. More generally, who thinks locking people in places where they are fed and housed and boxed up and surrounded only by other dysfunctional people is going to turn them into productive members of society? The idea would be laughable if it wasn’t part of the status quo. Prison, by its very design, breeds crime and social dysfunction.

And of course, it is impossible to talk about prison without talking about the prison rape epidemic. Can there be anything more abject than a society whose police-procedural TV shows include prison rape jokes—and nobody is outraged? Everyone knows that it goes on. Everybody knows that it’s endemic. Lock up a bunch of men in tight quarters, without access to females. Many of the men are violent, over-testosteroned, and dysfunctional. What will happen? And we joke about it. On those grounds alone, the entire system deserves to be scrapped.

Maybe these problems are just from lack of reform? Maybe we just need to fund prisons more, to make the way they work better, to set up more rehabilitation programs. Sorry, that won’t work. Prison doesn’t suck because of historical accident. It sucks because of structural political reasons. In a democracy, an interest group gets attention and funding from the government in proportion to its numerical size and public sympathy level. The one group that will never be big enough, and certainly never popular enough, to get good treatment are prisoners. Because of the way the political system works, prisoners will never be able to get the political capital to get the reforms that might (might!) in theory make prisons not awful. We all live in Omelas.

Prisons are also contrary to the values of liberty that any civilized society ought to aspire to. As the French writer Michel Foucault argued in his landmark essay Discipline and Punish, prison is a historical oddity that arose as a result of the modern state’s increasing ability and eagerness to control more and more of its citizens’ lives. Well-meaning modernist reformists believed the way to set the crooked timber of man straight was through institutions that would, well, discipline and punish—schools, military barracks, prisons. It’s no coincidence that the celebrated progressive Enlightenment thinker Jeremy Bentham is also the author of the Panopticon concept, one of the creepiest ideas in all history. Prison has to go.

The comeback is inevitable: “Then what’s your alternative, smart guy?”

The alternatives are actually countless, and all better. But it all depends on the kind of crime we’re talking about.

For petty crime, the obvious answer is community service. It’s real punishment, without the inhumane and crime-breeding drawbacks of prison. The work of community service should be geared toward reparation: For example, if you’ve been caught doing graffiti, you should clean graffiti; if you’ve been driving drunk, you should embalm corpses of people who died in car accidents. And if all fails, there is always the lash or the cane—easy, quick, much less destructive.

For more serious crimes, ankle bracelets. Did you kill someone in a fit of passion or drunk rage? Then instead of spending three years in prison, you should spend six years working minimum wage in a tedious job, your wages garnished, stuck at home with no internet or TV, with only a single night out allowed once in a while. That is real punishment—but punishment that does not have unacceptable moral costs.

As for the very serious crimes—well, I used to think the awfulness of prison was reason to support the death penalty. Now, I tend to think that prison might be acceptable for a very small percentage of crimes. If we have five percent the number of prisoners we currently have, I would be very happy.

In any case, the point should be clear: We can abolish prison—and we must.

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Groove of the Day

Listen to Seal performing “Crazy”

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Weather Report

76° Cloudy and Windy




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