Monday, January 07, 2019

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Yes, it’s the Space Age

  Yesterday a CBC news reader talking about the New Horizons probe moved on to the next story by saying “Meanwhile, here on Earth,” and gave a little laugh. Disbelief ? Delight? Whatevever the case, I don’t think we will be laughing at  such usages for much longer.  Ultima Thule - or today, thanks to China, the far side of the Moon - is a place that you can go. Or at least, send a package to.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Rule of Law state

Canada's Foreign Minister, Crystia Freeland, has been reminding the Chinese government--which has been mistreating Canadians who work in China at NGOs because they don't like what our courts have done in an extradition case--that Canada is a Rule of Law state and intends to keep acting accordingly.

She has been using Rule of Law phrase so consistently that it is bound to stick in official and semi-official usage, at least for a while.

I wonder if this bugs the Chinese. After all, the opposite is "outlaw state."

I rather hope it bugs the hell out of them.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Joseph McGill on the US Constitution

Joseph McGill, a preservationist dedicated to maintaining the physical remnants of American slavery

One of the things that we need to understand is that 12 of our former presidents were slaveowners, eight of whom owned slaves while they were in office. Even those who contributed to those major documents that we live by today — you know, the Constitution’s ‘We, the people.’ It should have read, ‘We, the people,’ comma, ‘here in this room,’ because otherwise that document meant nothing to you.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

This looks good: University of Pennsylvania Press publishes a history of usury and debt

UPenn Press is bringing out a paperback edition of Charles R. Geisst's
Beggar Thy Neighbor: A History of Usury and Debt.


The practice of charging interest on loans has been controversial since it was first mentioned in early recorded history. Lending is a powerful economic tool, vital to the development of society but it can also lead to disaster if left unregulated. Prohibitions against excessive interest, or usury, have been found in almost all societies since antiquity. Whether loans were made in kind or in cash, creditors often were accused of beggar-thy-neighbor exploitation when their lending terms put borrowers at risk of ruin. While the concept of usury reflects transcendent notions of fairness, its definition has varied over time and place: Roman law distinguished between simple and compound interest, the medieval church banned interest altogether, and even Adam Smith favored a ceiling on interest. But in spite of these limits, the advantages and temptations of lending prompted financial innovations from margin investing and adjustable-rate mortgages to credit cards and microlending.

In Beggar Thy Neighbor, financial historian Charles R. Geisst tracks the changing perceptions of usury and debt from the time of Cicero to the most recent financial crises. This comprehensive economic history looks at humanity's attempts to curb the abuse of debt while reaping the benefits of credit. Beggar Thy Neighbor examines the major debt revolutions of the past, demonstrating that extensive leverage and debt were behind most financial market crashes from the Renaissance to the present day. Geisst argues that usury prohibitions, as part of the natural law tradition in Western and Islamic societies, continue to play a key role in banking regulation despite modern advances in finance. From the Roman Empire to the recent Dodd-Frank financial reforms, usury ceilings still occupy a central place in notions of free markets and economic justice.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

What North Bay used to be famous for


I spent a couple of decades, more really, teaching history at Nipissing University in North Bay Ontario.  The University was quite close to the back up NORAD nuclear defense HQ. which is the subject of this short documentary. A little before or after I started at Nipissing, the Hole and the air base were downgraded and lost their fame.  One of my colleagues, Kees Boterbloem, taught a couple of classes on the Cold War and  he got permission to take his students down in the Hole. One time I got to tag along!

It was undramatic, but I was glad not to miss it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Outlaw King (2018)

 The outlaw king is a recent movie depicting the struggle of Robert Bruce to establish Scotland's independence from England (a country ten times it size) in the early 14th century.

Some good aspects of OK:

  • Costumes and armor look good
  • The landscapes are AWESOME (in the proper sense of the word)
  • It's been a while since I studied up on Scottish history. but there don't seem to be any gratuitous anachronisms.
But the movie lacks:
  • In depth characterization
  • sufficient explanation of the political situation of Scotland 
 The result was that I didn't  care about the main characters and their motives (such as they were). Robert Bruce was completely flat. The Prince of Wales (Edward II) was a character out of melodrama.  Why did Edward I want to conquer Scotland anyway?

I think the movie-makers tried much harder than most to get the history right, but they
would have done better if they had inserted maybe three scenes of explanatory material.  If you go into this movie without any background except the notion "England bad, Scotland good" you

will no get no more than that.  Of course there is a sizeable audience for just that sentiment...

Image: The Bruce family on vacation

Monday, November 19, 2018

Political beliefs

 For some months now I've been reading the commentary of Umair Haque.  His understanding of the current political situation, especially in the United States is so bleak that it reminds me of Old Testament prophecy, or maybe the crazier elements of the Reformation.  

But as this recent essay indicates, 

Umair would not thank me for the comparisons to prophets.  And in fact what he says about  political beliefs is surely the most important part of this post. It is certainly worth serious thought.

A substantial excerpt:

I want to tell you the story of the greatest lesson in history, which you probably don’t know. It’s the one the 20th century is trying to teach the 21st — but we, blinded by ideologies, weary and failing ways of thinking about the world, society, and ourselves, are still only just barely struggling to grasp it — if we are not resisting it outright. After all, we are not even twenty years into this century — so it’s no surprise the last one’s greatest lesson is yet unlearned.
There’s a question that’s as old as time. How do we build ciities, countries, towns, societies — worlds, lives — which prosper, endure, soar? Some said — the brutish and the shallow, mostly: “We gain by taking what is theirs! Let us enslave and exploit them! Why, they are not people at all!” And then cooler and wiser minds replied, shaking their heads: “No, no. We mustn’t do that. We must lift everyone up — and everyone is a person — never pull anyone down.” So. Shall we prosper by exploitation — or through liberation? Through subjugation and slavery, through hate and violence — or their opposites, equality, freedom, justice? Here’s a fact. Nobody really knew. So we humans, being the blind things we are, settled for the best we could: we debated it for millennia, with more and abstruse and abstract theories of morality, ethics, politics, economics. Here’s another fact. We didn’t know the answer — until now.
I was amused — if not surprised — to read, somewhere in a little corner of the internet, a description of myself as a socialist. In that accusatory way that Americans — at least some of them, on the fringe — still use the word. Amused because, well — let me describe my politics to you. My politics are very simple. I try not to have any. LOL — what? I’m sure that leaves many of you bewildered, even surprised. “But you’re always going on about capitalism and — “ Very true, so I do. So what in blazes do I mean?
You could in one way describe my politics, if you are very insistent of putting people in little boxes and neatly labelling them, this way. I suppose that I’m a pretty ordinary kind of social democrat — the kind that most people who aren’t Americans, but live in rich countries, are, from Europe to Canada. I think that the superior social contract at this juncture in human history is simple and straightforward ... That social contract goes like this: people provide one another the basics of a good life in modern terms, which means health care, education, some minimal income and savings, retirement, and so on. Capitalism — at a human scale — takes care of thmy politics” in the sense that people usually mean the term. They are not my beliefs, moral, social, cultural, and so on, based on theories of some such and this that, which I am trying to push on you, to persuade you of, mistakes to correct in you. They are not beliefs — things I don’t know, but presume, or hope, or wish to be true — in any whatsoever ....) So if they aren’t my beliefs, then what are they?
They are facts. Nothing more and nothing less. Just facts. It is a fact that people are happier in social democracies. It is a fact that people are richer, wealthier, closer, live longer, saner, better lives, in nearly every regard. There is nothing subjective or unknown about that statement, and so it is not a belief in any way whatsoever. Do you see the difference here — between fact and belief? You might think that I’m splitting hairs — but I think that both the future, and the greatest lesson in human history that you probably don’t know lie right here.
Why? Let me explain backwards. What’s unique about America? It’s that it got the social contract of modernity, which I described above — people provide each other the necessities, and capitalism provides the luxuries — absolutely backwards. America, unique amongst rich nations — all nations, in fact, tried a social contract where capitalism provides people the necessities, and the luxuries, things like yachts and mansions and so forth, are often had by way of a kind of weird, inverse socialism — cronyism, how close you are to powerful politicians and capitalists and so on, how many subsidies you can grab, how much you take from others.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to have said: hey, listen…this social contract probably isn’t going to work out. Not only does capitalism have no incentive, reason, or motive to provide people the necessities, if the way to get rich is by everyone exploiting everyone else in the first place — then a society will never really go anywhere at all. And that is exactly what happened in America during my whole adult lifetime. Society literally went nowhere.
I mean that in the hardest possible terms. Society literally went nowhere.Incomes went nowhere. Life expectancy fell. Social mobility dropped. Depression and suicide rose. And so on. Along every indicator you can imagine or think of, America has made zero progress during my whole adult lifetime. That is not a belief. It is not my opinion, it is not a subject for debate — it is simply a fact. America tried out yet another social contract based on exploitation — capitalism, after segregation and slavery — whose results were as predictable then as they are real today: as people grew poorer, they turned to authoritarianism, instability became collapse, and here we are today, hoping a Blue Wave will stem the tide.
But if I start “believing” things about political economy, about society, about the world, then what happens? I can’t do my job very well if I “believe” things to be true, instead of know them, can I? Then I go from being something like an observer — or maybe intellectual, or maybe just an educated person, or maybe just a civilized one, you can choose — to being something more like a fool, someone who has rejected knowing, scorned truth. Do you see the problem here? It applies to you, too.
So why are we cursed with this burden of political beliefs? Why can’t more of us simply let go of beliefs — and say — whatever labels and ideologies the world, my society, my culture has trained and taught me to “believe” in, I will hold them lightly, tentatively, skeptically? Strangely, if you think about it, we can’t shed the burden of belief because it is a new thing to be able notto have political “beliefs.” Think about the world. Until the 1970s or so, it was eminently reasonable to say something like — “Who knows? Maybe capitalism is better. Maybe communism is! Maybe authoritarianism is. Or maybe apartheid states are the best kind to be! Who knows how the average person will be better off?” You see, we didn’t have much evidence about much at all, when it came to different modes and models of political economy, society, social contracts, and so forth.
Let me put that to you much more starkly. We could have said, probably until the 1970s or so, that America was a rich and powerful nation — and it was still segregated. Furthermore, it had gotten rich through slavery as much or more as through innovation. Europe, too, was still rising from the ashes of war — at that point, Spain was still a military dictatorship, and Germany still a split, riven nation. Who was to say which system was better, out of all the many choices political economy had to offer? Remember my question? It’s as old as time.
Over the last fifty years or so, a revolution hidden in plain sight has taken place in the world — which has gone too often unnoticed — and especially not American intellectuals, which is why Americans are in the dark about it (even though they intuitively get it, a full 70% of them can be described today as something like emerging social democrats anyways.) That miracle was this — European social democracy began to pioneer history’s highest living standards ever, period, full stop. Within fifty years — just fifty years! — less than one human lifetime, shattered, wrecked societies like Germany, Spain, and France had achieved the following things: the world’s longest lifespans, richest and largest middle classes, most equitable distributions of wealth, and so on. Scandinavia, taking it further, built history’s, and the world’s happiest, most egalitarian, and wealthiest societies.
Does prosperity come from exploitation — or from liberation? No one knew. Hence, millennia of bitter debates, about morality, religion, society, and so on — which simmered until the boiled over, finally, in a century of grand social experiments. American capitalism, Soviet communism, German fascism, and so on. That century was the last one.

The system that resulted in Europe, which came to be called “social democracy”, was revealed to be the most powerful lever of human possibility that had been discovered, ever. It was so powerful, in fact, that it made an impoverished, ruined Europe more prosperous in every single way than America in a single human lifetime.
Now, it’s equally important to understand the rejection, if you like, of the alternate hypothesis. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been ruled by the most brutal and foolish among them — and such minds have said: “the way to prosperity is through enslaving and exploiting and abusing others! As long as we can get them to do our work, with the whip or the chain or the trinket — why, we will be kings!” America, sadly, has a tendency to listen to such minds, over and over again. Hence, the basics of the hypothesis it has been testing have always remained more or less the same — prosperity results from exploitation.
But American collapse tells us that exploitation does not lead to prosperity. It leads to poverty amidst grotesque amounts of plenty, like having to choose between medicine and shelter even if you’re “middle class””, that is, profound and terrible inequality, which causes instability, which sparks authoritarianism, and so on.
That’s why America is where it is. It is a nation, sadly, which is largely ignorant, by design, of the greatest fact in the world, one of the greatest facts in history: that we have the missing formula for human prosperity, finally, after millennia of strife and war and hate and ruin. It’s simple. Prosperity comes from liberation, not exploitation. That formula — or that recipe — is at this point in human history, an empirical reality,
That is why I try not to have politics, my friends. Politics are largely empty vessels, hopefully obsolete things, in this day and age, really. The future won’t be made with people with political beliefs, as it was yesterday. That is because we have stark evidence about those beliefs, finally, after all the long midnights of human history — all the slavery, all the hatred, all the whips and all the chains. Where did they lead? Upwards — or downwards?
Today — this juncture in human history — really is different. We don’t need to believe, like blind people, anymore — to guess and hope and wonder. We simply need to see what is front of our eyes. The future will be made, then, by radical pragmatists. Who can take history’s great lessons — and apply them. But that is only because they understand them.

Thursday, November 15, 2018


Back in the late 1960s and 70s, I self-identified as a science fiction fan.  Back then, fandom meant books and magazine fiction and amateur "zines" which played some of the role of social media today, though for a much smaller audience.

For some years now both Phil Paine and I have marvelled how this very fringy sub-culture has evolved into a very central part of contemporary culture.  It's much more associated with movies and comics -- cons are largely comic oriented-- than with science fiction, at least more serious "sf"based on ideas that come out of an appreciation of real science.  It feels odd to us that so much that originated in that tiny hobby is now a common currency.

I don't know how much of this has been discussed and analyzed but the recent Hollywood Reporter has a meaty article about one aspect of fandom today.  Have a look at What Happens When Fandom Doesn't Grow Up?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A good, thoughtful post from back when

A few months ago I read a good post from this blog and announced to the world that I would start re-running some of the best posts.

Well, if you are one of my faithful readers, you know that I haven't had the time or the energy to follow through on this plan.

But today, TODAY, I ran across this gem.  I can't completely reconstruct the context (Roman empire, Walter Goffart, Andrew Sullivan(!)), but it is clear that April 21, 2007 was a very good day for me.

Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire

Andrew Sullivan's blog directed me to the inside flap blurb of John Robb's Brave New War as printed at Amazon. These passages caught my eye:

In Brave New War, the controversial terrorism expert John Robb argues that the shift from state-against-state conflicts to wars against small, ad hoc bands of like-minded insurgents will lead to a world with as many tiny armies as there are causes to fight for. Our new enemies are looking for gaps in vital systems where a small, cheap action—blowing up an oil pipeline or knocking out a power grid—will generate a huge return...

How can we defend ourselves against this pernicious new menace? Brave New War presents a debate-changing argument that no one who cares about national security can afford to ignore: it is time, says Robb, to decentralize all of our systems, from energy and communications to security and markets. It is time for every citizen to take personal responsibility for some aspect of state security. It is time to make our systems, and ourselves, as flexible, adaptable, and resilient as the forces that are arrayed against us.
Two weeks ago I was reading a similar argument in Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down, though H0mer-Dixon, without ignoring "security," is more interested in the environmental challenges we face.

A couple of short reflections. Robb's subtitle is The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. It's not clear from the blurb (which was probably written by a staffer at the publisher's office, or even a free-lance editor) whether Robb believes that globalization, defined in the blurb as "worldwide economic and cultural integration," has been a matter of centralization, of more power in the hands of presidents, billionaire investors, and media owners. Opponents of globalization have seen it that way and you can understand why. But the globalization that some fairly ordinary people, obscure academics at small Canadian universities for instance, have enjoyed the fruits of, has never been a matter of centralization. We in North Bay, Ontario have been empowered to do work that formerly would only have been possible for people based in Toronto, New York, Oxford or Paris. So some of us are pretty keen on this idea of decentralized and flexible systems. Like the Internet, which numerous governments and "intellectual property owners" have already tried to rein in as a threat to their old-style power.

A worthwhile globalization is a matter of creating civilized networks that are more robust and powerful than the networks of people who want to blow up things and shut people up in secret prisons. It doesn't strike me that this is an unprecedented challenge. Some of the tactics of the destroyers and the slavers may be new, but the world has always been infested with small groups who want to make big killings -- literal, financial, or both -- and don't care who gets hurt in the process if it's not them. The new terrorists aren't going to be content to be crawling around blowing up pipelines forever. Some of them are looking forward to that Swiss bank account, that luxurious compound on the Riviera, that imperial palace filled with beautiful and compliant servants. These guys aren't all crazed, self-sacrificing martyrs. They employ crazed martyrs. And you can bet they appreciate the role of law and law enforcement in securing their gains. There's a big danger to innocent life and the productive economy and our environment as a whole from the cheapness of some possible aggressive tactics, but in some ways it's the same old game. The future world, if we avoid environmental collapse, may solve terrorism simply by strengthening slavery.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with "the End of Civilization" (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don't think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that's it, then there was probably a lot less "civilization" in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury -- whatever luxury you prefer -- is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networksand extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

From the University of Pennsylvania Press: Slavery in a "Free State"

 The University of Pennsylvania Press is advertising this fascinating book:

The Alchemy of Slavery
Human Bondage and Emancipation in the Illinois Country, 1730-1865

M. Scott Heerman

248 pages | 6 x 9 | 12 illus.
Cloth Sep 2018 | ISBN 9780812250466 | $45.00s | Outside the Americas £35.00
Ebook editions are available from selected online vendors
A volume in the series America in the Nineteenth Century
View table of contents and excerpt

"M. Scott Heerman provocatively muddies the waters, demonstrating how slavery survived in 'free' Illinois all the way through the Civil War. His reinterpretation does much to link the history of Middle America to the global history of slavery."—Christina Snyder, Penn State University

"M. Scott Heerman offers much-needed and close scrutiny of the Illinois Country, a region that, because it straddled empires, labor systems, freedom, and slavery, opens up new understandings along a number of fronts, not least of which is the relationship between slavery's many iterations and the kind of freedoms those slaveries engendered. This book joins a growing body of scholarship that considers slavery and its legacies to be a national (versus a southern) problem, and which illuminates slavery as a historical process as opposed to a static and singular institution."—Susan Eva O'Donovan, University of Memphis

"Ambitious and meticulously researched, The Alchemy of Slavery illuminates the complex development of slavery and freedom in Illinois over more than a century. Heerman demonstrates the significance of local practices without neglecting broader developments in the French and British empires and in Washington, D.C. This book is wonderfully attentive to questions of geography and scale and makes a significant contribution to our understanding of colonial and early national North America." —Kate Masur, Northwestern University

In this sweeping saga that spans empires, peoples, and nations, M. Scott Heerman chronicles the long history of slavery in the heart of the continent and traces its many iterations through law and social practice. Arguing that slavery had no fixed institutional form, Heerman traces practices of slavery through indigenous, French, and finally U.S. systems of captivity, inheritable slavery, lifelong indentureship, and the kidnapping of free people. By connecting the history of indigenous bondage to that of slavery and emancipation in the Atlantic world, Heerman shows how French, Spanish, and Native North American practices shaped the history of slavery in the United States.

The Alchemy of Slavery foregrounds the diverse and adaptable slaving practices that masters deployed to build a slave economy in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, attempting to outmaneuver their antislavery opponents. In time, a formidable cast of lawyers and antislavery activists set their sights on ending slavery in Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, Lyman Trumbull, Richard Yates, and many other future leaders of the Republican party partnered with African Americans to wage an extended campaign against slavery in the region. Across a century and a half, slavery's nearly perpetual reinvention takes center stage: masters turning Indian captives into slaves, slaves into servants, former slaves into kidnapping victims; and enslaved people turning themselves into free men and women.

M. Scott Heerman teaches history at the University of Miami.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Dutch Gratitude Day

I went out this morning to see what our neighbors had done in the way of Halloween decorations.

It didn't seem to me that they had done a lot, though there were a number of skeletons.  More noteworthy were the Japanese maples that seem to be at their  peak color.

I think today could be called "Japanese Red Maple Tree Day."

Actually there was just last week another celebration.  PM Justin Trudeau went to the Netherlands and to greet him the Dutch put on another of the numerous Dutch Gratitude Days (my name, not theirs) that have been put on since the Second World War.

The reason for it goes back to 1945 when, after years of Nazi occupation, the Netherlands were liberated by Canadian forces, just in time to keep the Dutch from starving to death.  The Dutch have never forgotten this merciful intervention.

Who does that kind of thing?  As far as I know, only the Dutch.

I believe that this story sheds more honor on the Dutch than on Canada, though certainly it is one of the best episodes in Canadian history.  Bravo to all who were actually there, and their worthy descendents.


Apparently, Mons in Belgium has not forgotten the Canadians.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018


Stephen Marche will chill your blood.  An excerpt describing the steps to civil war:

To sum up: the US Congress is too paralyzed by anger to carry out even the most basic tasks of government. America’s legal system grows less legitimate by the day. Trust in government is in free fall. The president discredits the fbi, the Department of Justice, and the judicial system on a regular basis. Border guards place children in detention centres at the border. Antigovernment groups, some of which are armed militias, stand ready and prepared for a government collapse. All of this has already happened.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Narrative history no good?

The Verge publishes an interview in which the philosopher-neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg argues that the narratives out of which we build our underdtanding of other peopple's motives are entirely inadequate to the job. An excerpt:
The real imperative of my book is to try to get people to see that neuroscience has, in the last 20 years, begun to teach us about the nature of the brain and its relation to the mind and, of course, how this undermines theory of mind [the ability to guess other people’s thoughts and motivations]. There have been startling developments that have won Nobel Prizes and begun to answer the most profound questions people have been asking about human thought as far back as Aristotle and Descartes: how the brain could be the mind, exactly what it is about the machinery of neural circuitry that constitutes thought and cognition. If you pay attention to research and developments in these areas, you discover the way the brain actually realizes the cognitive properties that govern human experience is nothing like what consciousness tells us it is.

[Interviewer Angela Chen]

Before we get into the neuroscience part, how exactly does history get things wrong? And why do you find narrative so unconvincing?

           [Neuroscientist-historian Alex Rosenberg]
I myself am the victim of narrative. I love narrative. It’s the only thing I read, and it’s fantastically seductive. When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean a chronology of events; I mean stories with plots, connected by motivations, by people’s beliefs and desires, their plans, intentions, values. There’s a story. The problem is, these historical narratives seduce you into thinking you really understand what’s going on and why things happened, but most of it is guessing people’s motives and their inner thoughts. It allays your curiosity, and you’re satisfied psychologically by the narrative, and it connects the dots so you feel you’re in the shoes of the person whose narrative is being recorded. It has seduced you into a false account, and now you think you understand.

Rosenberg's ideas are treated at length in his book, How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, just out from MIT Press.
Image Herodotus, Father of History, Father of Lies. This is not what he really looked like, but what do you expect?