09 February 2016

The destruction of Lisbon, 1755

In 1755, an earthquake of magnitude 8.5 -9.0 or greater struck in the Atlantic just west of Lisbon.  Three separate quakes caused many of the great buildings in Lisbon to collapse to the ground.  Shortly thereafter a set of three tsunamis crashed ashore and destroyed the shipping in the Tagus river.  After the waters receded, fires from candles and furnaces in damaged churches and workshops broke out and spread uncontrollably throughout the city. 
“One of the first structures to catch fire was the stately palace of the Marques de Lourical… it was a repository of countless treasures, including a collection of over two hundred paintings by such masters as Titian, Correggio, and Rubens, and a renowned library of eighteen thousand books, which contained a history composed by the Emperor Charles V in his own hand, a collection of preserved plants (a herbarium) once owned by King Matthias Hunyadi of Hungary, and a priceless assemblage of original manuscripts, maps, and charts from the Portuguese Age of Exploration

[at the Riverside Palace] “The fire burned all of the galleries, halls, rooms, antechambers, and offices of the palace, with all of its rich decorations and furniture covered in gold, silver, and rich jewels of inestimable value,” wrote Portal. (p. 155)

Gone forever were all the singular and extraordinary objects collected by the kings of Portugal over the centuries. Gone, too, was the Royal Library, “the most excellent in Europe” added Portal. The pride of the late Joao V, and indeed all of Portugal, the entire library and its seventy thousand volumes, reams of priceless manuscripts, including many of the original travel logs of Vasco da Gama and other Portuguese explorers, rare tapestries, oil paintings, and engravings were incinerated (though a few objects may have been pilfered by thieves and subsequently lost). In terms of cultural harm, the destruction of Portugal’s Biblioteca dos Reis (Library of the Kings) ranks as one of the great tragedies in the history of the West and can be likened to the burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. (p. 165)

 “… the court in Lisbon was the richest in Europe in precious stones and it lost all of them, except those that the royal family had with them at the time of the disaster.” Indeed, “the two streets, where the richest goldsmiths and diamond setters lived, were those that suffered the most in the earthquake and the fire. In Goudar’s estimation,"two hundred diamond shops were completely buried under the ruins.”

Also “lost were priceless suits of armor,” wrote Father Portal, “especially those from the Royal Treasury belonging to his Majesty, jewels of incomparable value, diamonds, pearls, emeralds, [and] every kind of precious stone, [as well as] gold, silver, paintings, and statues.” (p. 272-3)

“As to diamonds, “11 to 12 million [cruzados’ worth of] diamonds” were lost in the India House alone… (about 1/3 of the official value of all the diamonds extracted from Brazil between 1740 and 1755.) 
Prior to this tragedy, Portugal had been one of the maritime powers of the world; for centuries it had been harvesting the mineral wealth of Brazil and other colonies.  The tragedy also destroyed all the public records of baptisms, births, burials, genealogy, the account books of merchants, treaties, contracts, rents, receipts, financial and economic legislation, and much of the paper money.

I've transcribed the text excerpts above from This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, by Mark Molesky. 

See also this post from last month: The Library of John V of Portugal.

Portugal's Reign of Terror

Most educated people are familiar with the Reign of Terror that accompanied the French Revolution.  I was not aware that a similar tragedy had previously taken place in Portugal.

The events unfolded in the aftermath of the tragedies (earthquakes, tsunamis, great fire) of 1755.  In the social turmoil that followed, several shots were fired into a carriage, wounding the king.  Pombal, the Secretary of State, rounded up "several of the most powerful and prominent nobles in Portugal. All were interrogated and many were tortured.”  They were then tried, and executed on a platform in Belem before thousands of spectators.
“The Marchioness of Tavora was the first that was brought upon the scaffold, where she was beheaded at one stroke… [three noblemen and three servants] were strangled at a stake, and afterwards their limbs broken with an iron instrument. The Marquis of Tavora and the Duke of Aveiro [illustration] had their limbs broken alive… The body and limbs of each of the criminals, after they were executed, were thrown upon a wheel… But when Antonio Alvares Ferreira was brought to the stake, whose sentence was to be burnt alive, the other bodies were exposed to his view. The combustible matter which had been laid under the scaffolding was set fire to, [and] the whole machine with the bodies was consumed to ashes, and then thrown into the sea.”
Unlike the French Revolution which lasted 11 months, the turmoil in Portugal continued for 18 years, from 1759-1777.

Quoted text (p. 351) from This Gulf of Fire: The Destruction of Lisbon, or Apocalypse in the Age of Science and Reason, by Mark Molesky.   Illustration via Wikiwand.

Well, that settles that

Via Bad Newspaper.

James Garfield - president for only 200 days

I have a new favorite president. Before reading this book, literally the only things I knew about James Garfield were that he was featured on the 20c prexie stamp (because he was the 20th president) and that he was assassinated while in office. Now I can add the following...

He grew up in Ohio in abject poverty – a one-room log cabin with a plank floor and windowpanes made of oiled paper. When he was two years old, his father died at age 33, leaving his mother with four children to feed. She farmed the land with the aid of his 11-year-old brother and saved money so that by age four James was able to get a pair of shoes. At age sixteen he began working on the Erie and Ohio Canal, but returned home after contracting malaria. By then his mother had saved $17, which was used to send him to Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a one-building prep school. During his first year he worked as a janitor in exchange for receiving an education.
So vigorously did Garfield apply himself during his first year at the Eclectic that, by his second year, the school had promoted him from janitor to assistant professor. Along with the subjects he was taking as a student, he was given a full roster of classes to teach, including literature, mathematics, and ancient languages. He taught six classes, which were so popular that he was asked to add two more – one on penmanship and the other on Virgil. (p. 23) 
From there he moved to Williams College in Massachusetts and graduated in two years. He entered state politics in Ohio, then served in the Civil War in the Union Army, after which he was elected to Congress. He did NOT want to be president. He attended a nominating convention which was hopelessly deadlocked. On the 34th ballot, some electors voted for him. He rose to protest and was told to sit down.  On the 36th ballot, he became the Republican nominee – against his will. He was described as shocked, sickened, and pale as death during the proceedings. (pp 40-46).

He never participated in the campaign which was conducted on his behalf, preferring to work and receive visitors on his 160-acre farm.
He built a barn, moved a large shed, planted an orchard, and even shopped for curtains for the house…. he added an entire story, a front porch, and a library. Even with the new library, Garfield’s books filled every room. “You can go nowhere in the general’s home without coming face to face with books,” one reporter marveled. “They confront you in the hall when you enter, in the parlor and the sitting room, in the dining-room and even in the bath-room…” (p. 58) 
His campaign platform as a Republican emphasized civil rights and the welfare of the freed slaves, in which endeavor he was supported by Frederick Douglass. Voter turnout for the election was 78%, and he was elected by a narrow margin.
In the days that followed… Garfield could not shake the feeling that the presidency would bring hi only loneliness and sorrow. As he watched everything he treasured – his time with his children, his books, and his farm – abruptly disappear, he understood that the life he had known was gone. The presidency seemed to him not a great accomplishment but a “bleak mountain” that he was obliged to ascend. (p. 64) 
The assassin, Charles Guiteau, was a religious fanatic who was delusional to the point of frank psychosis. He borrowed $10 to buy a gun, used it to shoot the president not for any political or philosophical reason, but because he believed God wanted him to do it.
His first and primary defense was “Insanity, in that it was God’s act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.” (p. 237) 
The “insanity defense” was well established at the time. Interestingly, everyone at the time agreed that Guiteau was insane and that insane people were not liable for their actions. Everyone on the jury knew this also, but they were so angry that they basically said “he’s guilty – hang him anyway.”

Other interesting tidbits from the book: After Garfield was shot, the second physician who responded to the event was Charles Purvis, surgeon in chief of the Freedmen’s Hospital, 39 years old, one of the first black men in the U.S. to receive medical training at a university, and obviously the first ever to treat a president. (p. 140)

The White House of that era was like a slum residence, perpetually damp with rotting wood and vermin-infested walls and the odor of raw untreated sewage, situated next to a malarial tidal marsh. (p. 176)

Garfield was a Republican who embodied the party’s enthusiasm for helping immigrants, freed slaves, and impoverished people. He believed the key to improving the country lay in educating those people. (182)

It has been said that Guiteau did not kill the President – he shot him, but the doctors killed him by repeatedly probing the wound with ungloved, unwashed fingers. Guiteau used this argument in his own futile defense (“General Garfield died from malpractice.”). The bullet had lodged on the left side of his body behind the pancreas, but the attempts to find it on the right side resulted in profound septic sequelae:
One cavity in particular, which began at the site of the wound, would eventually burrow a tunnel that stretched past Garfield’s right kidney, along the outer lining of his stomach, and down nearly to his groin. An enormous cavity, six inches by four inches, would form under his liver, filling with a greenish-yellow mixture of pus and bile. (p. 196) 
He apparently developed septic emboli:
Just two weeks after the surgery, another abscess formed, this one on Garfield’s right parotid gland… the abscess had become so filled with pus that it caused his eye and cheek to swell and paralyzed his face. Finally, it ruptured, flooding Garfield’s ear canal and mouth with so much pus… that it nearly drowned him. (p. 216) 
The woefully incompetent Dr. Bliss treating him [“Ignorance is Bliss”] tried to cope with the president's rapid cachexia by feeding him intrarectally. The eventual cause of death (determined by autopsy) was hypovolemic shock following a rupture of the splenic artery (probably from a septic aneurysm).

Garfield does not get credit for any particular legislative achievements, because his time in office was too brief. Rather, his legacy is reflected in how his illness and death united the people of the country during the fractious time in the aftermath of the Civil War. And since Guiteau’s act had arisen in connection with the corrupt “spoils system” for giving out lucrative government job contracts, the popular revolt after the death led to the establishment of the civil service system. After his death, Garfield’s widow assembled his books and papers in a wing of their farmhouse, establishing the nation’s first-ever presidential library. 

The book is Destiny of the Republic. A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard, published by Doubleday in 2011. I'm pleased to add it to my list of recommended books.

Addendum 2016:
I am delighted to report that the superb television series American Experience has just released a program entitled "Murder of a President," about President Garfield; it is based on the book I reviewed above in 2012.  The two-hour program is playing on PBS stations around the country, and it can be viewed online here.

06 February 2016


Secret doors and hiding places in homes.

Introducing the New York Public Library's erotica collection.  "For decades, they were kept in locked cages, accessible only with special permission and viewed in a small, secured area in the main research library. More recently, hundreds of works that make up the triple-star collection have been liberated from the restricted controls. An adult with a library card can simply fill out a request and peruse the material on the premises."

The use of microwaved tampons and WD-40 in food photography.

A game of Monopoly completed in 21 seconds (video).  "The shortest possible game of Monopoly requires only four turns, nine rolls of the dice, and twenty-one seconds."

The pronunciation of poinsettia is explained at Language Log.  "The journalist also wondered whether the "poinsetta" pronunciation is a mistake, and whether people who use it should be corrected. My response was that there are lots of similar cases of variants with a phoneme or two missing — february, surprise, etc. — and the fact that such variants are listed in dictionaries is a good reason not to correct people who prefer them. And there are other cases where pronouncing the lost phonemes is actually a mistake — wednesday (at least in the U.S.), worcester, etc."

A discussion thread about suspicious deaths occurring in the Scientology-owned Fort Harrison Hotel and the failure of police to investigate emergency calls from the hotel.

A humorous advertisement for butt plugs (SFW).

There seems to be no end to odd cake wrecks. " The birthday girl’s name is Starr. That’s Starr, with two “r”s. Got it?"

How to run out of a steep hole.

A video about the Helicobacter in Otzi's stomach.

"Heavy fighting breaks out in a refugee camp" (Serbian police vs. middle-eastern children).  A 30- second video you will enjoy.

"My late granddad had a quaint way of bidding people goodbye. He would say “Goodbye, and thank your mother for the rabbits”. Do you think that was just him being himself, or was it an expression in general use? He lived a bit further north than I do at the moment, in north-west Durham."  Explanation at World Wide Words.

Here's what's wrong with modern country music.

A wooden prosthesis for a medieval leg has been found in an Austrian archaeological site.

A Mary Sue for female characters and Gary Stu or Marty Stu for male characters is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment

"Probably any aphid you have ever met was female. In some aphid species, males do not exist or at least have never been observed. In other species, males only occur during one of the many generations that occur during the season, late in the year."

A panoramic photo taken inside the Hatton Gardon heist bank vault.  Impressive.

Photos and thumbnail bioraphies of the ten tallest people currently alive.  If you were 8 feet tall, you'd only come in third.

The Oxford Words blog explains the origin of the phrase "currying favor" in a brief video.  "The original form of this phrase was actually ‘to curry Favel’, which probably sounds rather puzzling. Favel was the name of a chestnut horse in a 14th-century French tale who was renowned for his cunning and duplicity."

NPR reports that "The Onion" has been sold to Univision. (honest)

A gallery of photos of spiders that catch and eat bats.

The largest known prime number has been discovered.  The number is 274,207,281-1.  It has 22,338,618 digits.  Perhaps some reader can leave a comment on this post as to why this is important or relevant to real life.

A "life pro tip" - "when paying a friend cash, ask them to double check it so they don't feel awkward counting it in front of you."

I have some terrible news...

With only 18 lines of dialogue and equally as few minutes of screen time, [Aurora/Sleeping Beauty] speaks less than any other speaking main character in a full-length Disney animated feature film.

Trail running in the Scottish Highlands.  A five-minute video best enjoyed by clicking the full-screen icon.

There is a long-standing debate and some simmering animosity in Minnesota between muskie fishermen and walleye fishermen.  This article explains why and tries to calm the waters with some observations on biology and ecology.

Statistically speaking, six out of seven dwarfs are not Happy.  :.)

A gallery of 28 photos from North Korea, with some trenchant captions (note the computers with no electricity).

In The Warning, veteran FRONTLINE producer Michael Kirk unearths the hidden history of the nation's worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. At the center of it all he finds Brooksley Born, who speaks for the first time on television about her failed campaign to regulate the secretive, multitrillion-dollar derivatives market whose crash helped trigger the financial collapse in the fall of 2008.

Video of an immense "sneaker wave" coming ashore in Oregon.  Very impressive.  Not the same as a tsunami, btw.

The photos for today's linkdump come from Growing Ice - an Overview, which is the best webpage I've found so far on unusual ice formations (top photo credit bobbi fabellano from the Olympic Peninsula).  I've been fascinated by ice flowers ever since I saw my first one growing in my yard when I lived in Kentucky.  More photos, and lucid explanations at the link.

04 February 2016


I never heard this word until encountering it at Futility Closet.  It wasn't even in my Random House - had to dig out the OED and get the magnifying glass:
Apricatev. rare.  [fr. Latin apricat].  To bask in the sun (or to expose to sunlight).  
Citations from 1691 to 1858 - the latter offering this curious turn of phrase:
"Not sunning, but mooning himself - apricating himself in the occasional moonbeams."
Reposted so my wife can once again enjoy seeing our old cat Boo-Boo enjoying the sun at our apartment in St. Louis fifteen years ago.

Jurassic lacewing vs. modern butterfly

"A study out today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: B that features IU paleobotanist David Dilcher as a co-author identifies a Jurassic-age insect whose behavior and appearance closely mimic a butterfly — but whose emergence on Earth predates the butterfly by about 40 million years.

Dilcher — who made international headlines last year for his role in discovering the mythical “first flower” — said these proverbial “first butterflies” survived in a similar manner as their modern sister insects by visiting plants with “flower-like” reproductive organs producing nectar and pollen."
"The butterfly-like insects, which went on to evolve into a different form of insect from the modern butterfly, is an extinct “lacewing” of the genus kalligrammatid called Oregramma illecebrosa. Another genus of this insect — of the order Neuroptera — survives into our modern era, and are commonly known as fishflies, owlflies or snakeflies...

... another evolutionary innovation found in the ancient lacewing fossils’ wings remained remarkably unchanged over the course of millennia: so-called “eye spots.”

This unique pattern on the wings, arising over 200 million years ago, is nearly identical to markings on the modern owl butterfly. To this day, owl butterflies use these circular marks as a defense mechanism against predators, which mistake the spots as the eyes of a larger, more threatening animal."
Text and images from Indiana University, via Vice's Motherboard.

I know what you meant to say, but...

Via Bad Newspaper.

Baby monitors can be hacked

Predictably enough, accounts are now surfacing of voyeurs and griefers who are using these capabilities to spy on, and taunt babies.

Jay and Sarah, parents in San Francisco, couldn't figure out what their three-year-old meant when he said he was scared to sleep at night because the "phone" kept talking to him, but then one night Sarah walked by and heard a stranger's voice coming out of the monitor, saying, "Wake up little boy, daddy's looking for you."

When Sarah walked in the room, the camera's night-vision lens turned to examine her and the voice added, "look someone's coming into view." 
Further details and links at BoingBoing.

Word for the day:
A griefer is a player in a multiplayer video game who deliberately irritates and harasses other players within the game, using aspects of the game in unintended ways. A griefer derives pleasure primarily or exclusively from the act of annoying other users, and as such is a particular nuisance in online gaming communities, since griefers often cannot be deterred by penalties related to in-game goals.

"Never have I seen a more beautifully kept toilet..."

A selection of photos of the toilet at John Wesley’s Chapel.
"There is a sepulchral light that glimmers as you descend beneath the chapel to enter the gleaming sanctum where, on the right hand side of the aisle, eight cedar cubicles present themselves, facing eight urinals to the left, with eight marble washbasins behind a screen at the far end. A harmonious arrangement that reminds us of the Christian symbolism of the number eight as the number of redemption – represented by baptism – which is why baptismal fonts are octagonal. Appropriately, eight was also the number of humans rescued from the deluge upon Noah’s Ark.

Never have I seen a more beautifully kept toilet than this, every wooden surface has been waxed, the marble and mosaics shine, and each cubicle has a generous supply of rolls of soft white paper. It is both a flawless illustration of the rigours of the Methodist temperament and an image of what a toilet might be like in heaven..."
"Yet before you leave and enter Methodist paradise, a moment of silent remembrance for the genius of Thomas Crapper is appropriate. Contrary to schoolboy myth, he did not give his name to the colloquial term for bowel movements, which, as any etymologist will tell you, is at least of Anglo-Saxon origin..."

Should your attention be entirely absorbed by this matchless parade of eight Crapper’s Valveless Waste Preventers, do not neglect to admire the sparkling procession of urinals opposite by George Jennings (1810-1882) – celebrated as the inventor of the public toilet. 827,280 visitors paid a penny for the novelty of using his Monkey Closets in the retiring rooms at the Great Exhibition of 1851, giving rise to the popular euphemism, “spend a penny,” still in use today in overly polite circles...
More photos and text at Spitalfields Life (a most interesting blog, btw).

If I had shoes like this...

View post on imgur.com

...maybe I could dance like her.


In a recent interview, Kate Winslet has agreed that there was room on the door for Jack.  A WaPo article discusses the issue and the Mythbusters investigation of the buoyancy of the plank.

Words for the day ("lagan" was new for me):
  • Flotsam is floating wreckage of a ship or its cargo.
  • Jetsam is part of a ship, its equipment, or its cargo that is purposely cast overboard or jettisoned to lighten the load in time of distress and is washed ashore.
  • Lagan (also called ligan) is goods or wreckage that is lying on the bottom of the ocean, sometimes marked by a buoy, which can be reclaimed.

"The ego has landed"

I am trying to minimize politics in this blog, but some political cartoons just beg to be reproduced.

This one is by Nick Anderson in Hearst Papers, via Jobsanger.

"What are the chances?"

One out of 64.  (Although I have read reports that it was 6 flips out of 7 - if so, some reader can calculate those odds for me).

The cartoon suggests that Republicans are upset; Salon's "Coingate" article says Bernie Sanders' supporters are crying foul. 

Time to move on.

Cartoon via Jobsanger.

03 February 2016

"Catching Kayla"

"Tom Rinaldi tells the remarkable story of Kayla Montgomery -- who, despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, has become one of the best young distance runners in the country."
Here's your inspirational video for the week. With a tip of the blogging hat to reader Jeffrey Olson for finding it and notifying me.
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