A trip to Perugia and then to Sicily

Every year for the past decade or so (with the exception of the COVID years of course), Becky and I have travelled to Italy for the delightful International Journalism Festival, which is held in the ancient city of Perugia, about two hours north of Rome in the hills of Umbria. It is a fantastic conference that takes place over five days and involves more than 350 speakers, hundreds of volunteers, and about a dozen amazing venues in the Centro Storico. Even more amazing, attendance is free and open to anyone. The photo below is just one of the beautiful venues, the Sala dei Notari or Gallery of Notables, which was built sometime in the 13th century — about two hundred years before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.

Another one of the festival’s venues, which was new last year, is the incredible Church of San Francesco, which was partially destroyed in World War II and has been restored to become a modern entertainment venue — with plexiglas filling in the hole at the top of the nave, and a modern sound system. It was quite spectacular to be on stage there.

Every year we have been to Italy, we have taken advantage of the trip by booking a few days to go somewhere else for a short vacation. Last year it was Puglia, in the south, and we also made a side visit to Matera, the ancient city of caves, one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in the world. The year before that it was Florence and Pisa, and we’ve also seen most of Rome (of course) as well as Venice, Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, and Cinque Terre. This year we met up with our Italian friend Anna Masera, who used to teach journalism at the university in Turin, and spent some time touring Sicily, including a somewhat terrifying trip up a very windy Mount Etna.

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How much does nothing weigh? A new experiment will find out

Manon Bischoff from Scientific American writes: “Geologically, Sardinia is one of the quietest places in Europe. The island, along with its neighbor Corsica, is located on a particularly secure block of Earth’s crust that is among the most stable areas of the Mediterranean, with very few earthquakes in its entire recorded history and only one (offshore) event that ever reached the relatively mild category of magnitude 5. Physicists chose this geologically uneventful place because the Archimedes experiment requires extreme isolation from the outside environment. It involves a high-precision experimental setup designed to investigate the worst theoretical prediction in the history of physics—the amount of energy in the empty space that fills the universe. Scientists are hauling a two-meter-tall cylindrical vacuum chamber and other equipment down into an old Sardinian mine where they will attempt to create their own vacuum and weigh the nothing inside.”

The great European house cat migration

From Frank Jacobs at Big Think: “Domestic cat bones around 8,000 years old have recently been found in both Serbia and Poland. This pushes back the arrival in Europe of one of humanity’s earliest companion animals by several thousands of years. Until recently, the thinking was that cats arrived in Europe only in Late Antiquity (roughly the 3rd to 7th century AD). That still holds true for many parts of the continent, but an earlier influx via Asia Minor into the Balkans, and further north, seems to have preceded it. Because the five known varieties of wildcat (Near Eastern, Chinese, Central Asian, Southern African, and European) are quite similar and can interbreed, scientists until recently had a hard time pinning down in which part of the world cat domestication first occurred. Some even suggested that it had happened at multiple times and places.”

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The fake criminal profiler who wanted to be Sherlock Holmes

From David Gauvey Herbert in NY Mag: “In January 2010, a team of detectives and a prosecutor flew to Philadelphia to present a case to a league of elite investigators called the Vidocq Society, which met once a month to listen to the facts of cold cases. The group’s co-founder, Richard Walter, was billed as one of America’s preeminent criminal profilers. But that quickly unravelled: Since at least 1982, he has touted phony credentials and a bogus work history. He claims to have helped solve murder cases that, in reality, he had limited or no involvement with — and even one murder that may not have occurred at all. These lies did not prevent him from serving as an expert witness in trials across the country. His specialty was providing criminal profiles that neatly implicated defendants, imputing motives to them that could support harsher charges and win over juries. Convictions in at least three murder cases in which he testified have since been overturned. In 2003, a federal judge declared him a “charlatan.”

This school has no classes, no teachers and lots of freedom

Christopher Spata writes for the Tampa Bay Times: “At the Spring Valley School, three dozen students ages 5 to 18 are trusted to do what they want. There are no classes, grades or homework. There are no “teachers,” only “staff.” Students decide when it’s time to graduate. Democracy rules, and students’ voting power far outweighs that of the school’s four adults. The kids at Spring Valley can fire or hire staff, admit or expel students and spend its budget. If you call, it’s likely a 15-year-old will answer the phone. When a Tampa Bay Times reporter asked to observe a day inside the tiny private school, the students considered the request and voted to allow it. Spring Valley has doubled tours for prospective families to twice a week, and an expansion of the 2,500-square-foot schoolhouse begins this summer. Students and staff voted recently to increase tuition from $4,850 to $6,717, the first significant increase in over a decade.”

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The infamous “dancing plague” in Europe in the 16th century

The outbreak began in July 1518 when a woman began to dance fervently in a street in Strasbourg. By early September, the outbreak began to subside. Historical documents, including “physician notes, cathedral sermons, local and regional chronicles, and even notes issued by the Strasbourg city council” are clear that the victims danced; it is not known why. Historical sources agree that there was an outbreak of dancing after a single woman started dancing. It lasted for such a long time that it even attracted the attention of the Strasbourg magistrate and bishop, and some number of doctors ultimately intervened, putting the afflicted in a hospital. Events similar to this are said to have occurred throughout the medieval age including 11th century in Kölbigk, Saxony, where it was believed to be the result of demonic possession or divine judgment. In 15th century Apulia, Italy a woman was bitten by a tarantula, and the venom made her dance convulsively. The only way to cure the bite was to “shimmy” and to have the right sort of music available, which came to be an accepted remedy.

Mark Twain fought for the South in the Civil War, and lasted two weeks

Claire Barrett writes for History.net: “In the summer of 1861, a former riverboat pilot named Sam Clemens went to war, according to the St. Louis Magazine, on a small yellow mule carrying a valise, a carpetbag, two gray blankets, a homemade quilt, a squirrel rifle, 20 yards of rope, a frying pan and, perhaps most importantly of all, an umbrella. The 25-year-old Missourian, alongside 14 other idealistic young men, answered Gov. Claiborne Fox Jackson’s call of 50,000 militia to defend their home state. They called themselves the Marion Rangers, with Twain entering their ranks as a second lieutenant. Clemens had grown up amid slavery in the South. His father had owned slaves. So had his neighbors. In 1860 Twain had voted for John Bell in the presidential election, who, although a Tennessee slaveholder, had opposed secession. Twain’s vote was seemingly a vote for the status quo he had grown up around. But as the war approached Missouri, Twain decided to take a stand — albeit a brief one. In all, the famed author’s stint lasted two weeks.”

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