Type-A bureaucrat who professionally pushes papers in the Middle East. History nerd, linguistic geek, and devoted news junkie.
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A Parable of Produce: Thinking little at two Memphis gardens

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Maybe you’re thinking you’ve heard this one before: A young, white gardener works at a predominantly African American private school in a neighborhood choked by poverty, its streets pocked by vacant houses, its residents cut off from the rest of the city by substandard public transportation.
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hannahdraper
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SATIREWIRE’S GUIDE TO THE PRESIDENTIAL INAUGURATION

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3:45 a.m. – In the first sign that America's day isn't off to a good start, Donald Trump will wake up. 3:46 a.m. -- Trump will tweet: “Inauguration Day! IF I decide to go through with it. MAYBE I WON’T. Unpredictable!”
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Crowdsourcing for Shakespeare - The New Yorker

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Around 1675, a woman named Margaret Baker wrote out a remedy for aches whose active ingredient was a puppy. “Take a whelpe that sucketh the fatter the better & drowne him in water till he be deade,” she advised. The reader should then gut the dog, fill its belly with black soap, “putt him one a spite & roste him well,” and apply the fat drippings to the patient’s skin, wafting the scent of warmed sage over him at the same time. “It will helpe him by the grace of god,” she concluded.

Baker’s prescription is on one of thousands of pages of handwritten documents from sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England that volunteers around the globe have transcribed as part of an initiative called Shakespeare’s World. Launched on Zooniverse, a research-crowdsourcing platform, in 2015, it is an effort to better understand everyday life and language around the time of William Shakespeare. The idea arose in 2013, when Chris Lintott, Zooniverse’s founder and an astronomer at the University of Oxford, asked his friend Victoria Van Hyning, a scholar of English literature, what she considered the most pressing problem in the humanities. “I said, ‘It’s definitely text transcription,’ ” Van Hyning, who is now Zooniverse’s humanities principal investigator, told me recently. Researchers have amassed enormous collections of old handwritten documents, but lack the time and resources to transcribe them all.

The problem was familiar to Lintott. Zooniverse grew out of a site called Galaxy Zoo, which Lintott and his colleagues created in 2007 to help them classify images of galaxies by shape. “We discovered by experiment that a Ph.D. student will only look at fifty thousand galaxies before they tell you what you can do with the rest of them,” Lintott said. Galaxy Zoo allowed volunteers to help sort the images, and it was eventually expanded into Zooniverse, which other researchers have since used to identify possible planets outside the solar system and to classify animals in the Serengeti. Applied to old manuscripts, the same strategy would allow researchers to build a repository of transcriptions that could be searched for quantitative answers to historical questions—how often rosewater was used in plague medicines, say, or when chocolate began appearing regularly in recipes. Similarly, linguists could trace the evolution of English in more detail. The first-known records of many words are in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s not always clear which he invented and which were already commonplace. The handwritten material of Shakespeare’s contemporaries is “more or less hidden,” according to Laura Wright, a historical linguist at the University of Cambridge and a Zooniverse volunteer. “Of course it looks like Shakespeare invented all this stuff, because his stuff is in print,” she said.

To tackle the problem, Zooniverse partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., and with the Oxford English Dictionary. Volunteers for Shakespeare’s World can view images of documents from the Folger’s manuscript collection, including family correspondence, household recipe books, and letters by state officials, and transcribe as little or as much of a page as they want. Many people initially struggle with the strange letter shapes and abbreviations, and the unstandardized spelling. “I humbly take leave” might be spelled “i umbli tacke leue”; “yolks of eggs” might be “yealks of egs.” And some handwriting is downright messy. “It looks like a spider’s gone in the ink and crawled all over the page sometimes,” Tracey Dixon, a civil servant in York, England, told me.

Fortunately, individual users do not have to worry about getting the text perfectly right. Multiple people transcribe each line independently, and an algorithm originally designed to identify similar DNA or protein sequences compares the strings of letters to determine a likely best answer. If most users agree on most of the text, the line is considered done; otherwise, the program keeps gathering data from more people until a consensus is reached or “we cry mercy,” Lintott said. (Those difficult cases are set aside for experts.) Spot-checks suggest that the quality of completed lines is close to that of scholarly work, Van Hyning said.

So far, around twenty-five hundred Zooniverse users have completed more than thirty-three hundred pages. Often, once volunteers get the hang of transcribing, they stick around to learn historical tidbits, follow the authors’ personal dramas, and contribute to research. “Even though you’re having fun, it feels much more justified than trying to catch all the Pokémon or whatever it is people do these days,” Dave Henderson, a freelance archeologist in Edinburgh, told me. At the same time, volunteering has its moments of tedium. Henderson now works primarily on letters rather than recipes, because one ingredient kept cropping up. “If I have to transcribe the word ‘rosewater’ one more time, I’ll go mad,” he said. “Some of the quantities—it must have absolutely reeked of roses.”

The documents reveal the anxieties of early-modern life, many of which feel remarkably familiar, even if the solutions aren’t. A remedy for scaly skin calls for rubbing a mixture of butter, mercury, and “fillth of a dogge” (a possible reference to dog feces) on the forehead. Readers are advised to suck beer out of a quill to avoid imbibing too much, to treat hair loss with oil of sulfur, and to concoct a drink for “Melancholye and weepinge” by simmering rosemary flowers, sugar, and claret wine over a fire. One letter writer claims that he is too frail to visit a sick friend, explaining that he cannot “goe to horsbacke wthout the helpe of too or three att the least.” “You actually get quite cross with him,” Elisabeth Chaghafi, an English lecturer at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, said. “Come on, couldn’t you be bothered to ride there and see your dying friend?” Dixon said that she wept while transcribing a copy of a letter from Sir Walter Raleigh to his wife, written when he thought he was about to be executed. (She was less impressed with Sir Francis Bacon, who “whinges all the time about not being given the particular jobs he wants.”)

Already, the project has yielded linguistic discoveries. Volunteers have found recipes for “Taffytie” and “Taffity” tarts, which might be variations on “taffeta,” implying a delicate texture. Combined with an existing record of a similar usage in the O.E.D., the new examples suggest that this was an established genre of dessert, like lemon-meringue pie is today, according to Philip Durkin, the dictionary’s deputy chief editor. A volunteer came across a recipe for “portugall farts”; Durkin noted that the O.E.D. already contains the phrases “Fartes of Portingale” and “ferte of Portugall,” defined as “a ball of light pastry,” but “to have ‘portugall farts’ as well is good,” he said. One letter, from 1567, about a headstrong youth uses the term “white lie,” pre-dating the O.E.D.’s earliest record of the phrase by nearly two centuries.

The Zooniverse project is slated to last for at least two more years, and in the meantime the Folger team will be uploading finished transcriptions to their Early Modern Manuscripts Online database, which launched in beta this month. Volunteers are continuing to log hours in the evenings, on holidays, and during coffee breaks. Heather Wolfe, a curator of manuscripts at the Folger, said, “I’m just so touched by their devotion.”

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hannahdraper
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acdha
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“Downton Abbey” Congressman’s Indictment Is a Hoot

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As the House of Representatives continues its struggle to break the bonds laid upon it by the tyrannous Office of Government Ethics, it seems worth remembering that, in fact, some government officers have been less than ethical over the years. Well, lots of them, actually, but some violations are more comical than others. And few have been more comical than those of ex-Rep. Aaron Schock, who was indicted in November for a hilarious streak of (allegedly!) unethical and corrupt nonsense that spanned almost his entire career in the House, according to prosecutors.

I previously found comical the antics of former Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat (and Harvard Law grad) who served on the Ways and Means Committee and, more to the point, took bribes. Even more to the point, the FBI found $90,000 in bribe money in his freezer at home, wrapped in aluminum foil and hidden in pie-crust boxes.  SeeJefferson Convicted of Bribery, Storing Cash in Freezer” (Aug. 5, 2009); see also “Assorted Stupidity #46” (Dec. 5, 2012) (mentioning that Jefferson’s last appeal had been rejected and that his release date is sometime in 2023).

I also mentioned former Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY), not so much because his crime (felony tax evasion) was all that funny but because he once threatened to break a reporter in half and/or throw him off a balcony in the Capitol. See Good Reason to Kill #48: Asked Wrong Question After State of the Union” (Jan. 29, 2014). He got another mention after he insisted that despite pleading guilty to a felony he would “absolutely not” resign from the House, although he later absolutely did. See Can a Convicted Felon Serve in Congress?” (Dec. 24, 2014) (answer: yes).

By the way, both Jefferson and Grimm were re-elected despite the pending charges, which is remarkably common and a good example of just how safe most incumbents’ seats really are. Somewhat similarly, Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) reportedly bought stock in a health-care company and then introduced a bill a week later that would have significantly helped that company. It’s somewhat similar because that hasn’t hurt his job prospects, either, at least judging by his nomination to be the next secretary of Health & Human Services.

The list goes on (*cough* Blagojevich), but it looks like most of these other politicians weren’t House members, so I’ll leave it at that for now. Because it’s time to talk about Aaron Schock.

Some remember Schock as a “precocious politician” (he was elected to the Peoria school board as a teenager, which I assume already makes you want to punch him), others as a “rising star” in national politics. But you hopefully remember him as the guy who spent $40,000 of taxpayer money to decorate his office so it looked like the set of Downton AbbeySee FBI Investigating Ridiculous Soon-to-Be-Former Congressman” (Mar. 20, 2015). According to the November indictment, that was in no way an isolated lapse of judgment.

House members get $1 million a year to run their offices, which seems like a lot but has to cover offices in D.C. and in the member’s district, including staff salaries and so forth. The money has to be used for “ordinary and necessary expenses” of running the office, which—and this seems to confuse some members—does not include personal or campaign expenses, or furniture, or (relevant here) decorations of more than “nominal value.” Nor can campaign funds be used for personal expenses.

Schock was elected in 2008. According to the indictment, the “scheme to defraud” began “as early as 2008″—i.e., right away—and continued “to at least October 2015,” when he resigned. In addition to the Downton Abbey remodeling, I also previously mentioned Schock’s hilariously bogus mileage-reimbursement claims, in which he submitted many more miles than his cars had actually been driven. Had I known about them, I would also have mentioned the following:

  • $29,000 in camera equipment for a staffer who was also his “personal photographer and videographer”;
  • $3,300 for a trip to Chicago to attend a Bears game, costs that included five hotel rooms and a private pilot (he got the skybox tickets for free);
  • $8,000 for a private plane to fly him from Peoria to Dulles because he was afraid he’d miss a connecting flight for a personal vacation;
  • Over $20,000 in profits he earned by buying Super Bowl and World Series tickets with taxpayer money and then reselling them;
  • $7,500 to reimburse a former staffer for legal fees he incurred after Schock falsely told him the feds were investigating him;
  • Almost $40,000 to redecorate and buy furniture for his apartment in Peoria, including $3k for the decorator’s travel expenses and $2k for stereo equipment; and
  • Another $7,000 for personal expenses after he resigned, including various expenses related to attending the American Country Music Awards in Dallas.

Wait, one more: starting in 2011 he hosted an annual “Congressman Aaron Schock Washington DC Fly-In” event, in which constituents could fly to DC at their own expense and go to various meetings. He charged his constituents a “Fly-In Conference Fee,” and kept the leftover money for himself. He did not, of course, tell his constituents they would be paying their congressman  directly for his services in arranging this event.

Nor did he tell anyone else, like, for example, the IRS.

These allegations haven’t been proven yet, of course, and Schock pleaded not guilty in December. I should also mention that he has argued the indictment is “politically motivated” and is evidence that our “federal justice system is broken.” And “[u]nlike some politicians”—he didn’t name any names—”I did not delete any emails.” So he’s got the moral high ground, at least.

He also gets major bonus points for comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln in his resignation speech on the floor of the House. Lincoln, too, only served a short time in the House, you see. I don’t think he scalped any tickets while he was there, but it’s been a while since I read his biography.

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hannahdraper
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The Last Shakers

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shakerdetail

Did you know there were still Shakers? There were 3. Now there are 2.

Sister Frances was a member of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village in New Gloucester, Maine who spent her life teaching and writing about her experiences as a member of the ever-dwindling, idiosyncratic Protestant denomination. Brother Arnold Hadd, one of those who survive her, reported that Sister Frances died “surrounded in love, tears and Shaker songs.”

A Shaker since the age of 10, Sister Frances converted to the faith with her mother after her father’s death. As the sect practices complete celibacy, no Shaker is born into the faith. With her death, a small, but significant, part of America’s religious ancestry moves closer to its extinction. To paraphrase John Donne, as the death of any person diminishes the individual, so of course does the death of Sister Frances diminishes our world a bit—and so much more so because she was a refugee of a counter-cultural tradition that held a bit of utopian promise against the machinery of state and industry.

Often confused with the far larger denomination of the Quakers (though itself a relatively small sect), the Shakers came from the same milieu of dissenting, radical religious traditions that emerged in 17th and 18th-century Britain. Ann Lee, the religion’s founder, was the daughter of a Manchester, England blacksmith. In 1774 she set out to the wilds of America with the promise of establishing a godly community in the New World. Mother Ann’s experiment became an important chapter in American utopianism, which included groups as varied as the Oneida Community, the Fourierists, the pilgrims at Ephrata and the social experiments of the 1960s. For Mother Ann, the New World was an opportunity to make the world new. As Mother Ann would reflect on her new home in upstate New York, “I saw a large tree, every leaf of which shone with such brightness as made it appear like a burning torch, representing the Church of Christ, which will yet be established in this land.”

To be fair, it’s fairly impressive that a religion with a central tenet that the sexes should not touch either could survive for more than 200 years.

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hannahdraper
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Fascinating slice of history - but why do they all look like they're in the Thriller video?
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fxer
2 days ago
That's how you Shaker your Money Maker https://media.giphy.com/media/Z4IXspU3iCHlK/giphy.gif
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Save the date: 2022

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That's when a new star will rise in the east and dominate the sky.  This is the result of a collision of two stars that happened 1800 years ago.
Before their meeting the two stars were too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but in 2022, the newly formed Red Nova will burn so brightly in the constellation Cygnus that everyone will be able to to see it...

For around six months the Boom Star will be one of the brightest in the sky before gradually dimming, returning to its normal brightness after around two to three years...

The forecast was made officially at a press conference on Friday, all the more poignant because it coincided with the epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Three Wise Men, who followed the star to Bethlehem to witness the birth of Jesus.
Some information on how the prediction was made is at The Telegraph.  Embedded image cropped for size.
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