Saturday, September 23, 2023

You don't need the Internet...

or social media to generate crazy new tribalisms. Go back to my post of March 2008, The 60s and 70s at Kabul University and elsewhere, and tell me that this doesn't sound exactly like the evils that we blame on social media today.

Friday, September 08, 2023

Good news about climate change and green energy?

Noah Smith of Noapinion is an interesting economist who makes his arguments based on numbers, numbers, numbers. And graphs. Maybe more than other economists who use numbers and graphs. Today e says the explosive growth of solar and battery power sources means that "our climate debates are out of date." There is lots of climate bad news -- ask Maui, Yukon, British Columbia, Northwest Territories -- but Smith offers a set of numbers that provides reason for some optimism: the plunging cost of solar energy and battery power, and the dramatic growth of new energy sources around the world. Political regimes and private industry of different colors (Texas! California! China!) are piling into this area because MONEY TALKS. Have a look at his arguments and numbers here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2023

Salman Rushdie, Jack Vance, and magic realism

I finally finished Salman Rushdie's novel The Enchantress of Florence and boy, what a read it is. The Scotsman quite accurately says
this book would do instead of food and drink.Everything you need is in there.
In fact, I found it extraordinarily rich. As in the case of a very few books I have read, I often stopped in amazement at how much story Rushdie crammed into a paragraph, a half-paragraph, or a bit more. The Enchantress was sometimes (too?) rich. At least, I often stopped, put the book down and did not pick it up again. Was The Enchantress a too rich dessert? Rather, I think that it was made up of so many threads that it was hard to find my place.

Is this a flaw in the book? I would point instead to another feature of the book, its vast scope. The tale stretches from Medici Florence to Delhi in the time of Akbar, the Mughal emperor who tried to an established, tolerant religion in his huge empire. Rushdie describes Akbar's line of thought in great detail. More: he does much the same for Akbar's male friends. And he does as much for the ladies -- several of whom wield mighty influence behind and before the throne, even though some of them are dead. Geography (this is the age of discovery) likewise is as important as character.

Rushdie clearly was fascinated by the era, the cultures, the debates, and he wants his readers to be fascinated, too. He may have thought, if anyone asked, "Mr. Rushdie, is this a novel or a history?" that he could hardly answer. (Would he have better luck answering if he and his interlocitur were discussing Greek literature of the 2nd century CE?) His desire to have his reflections on the history of Hindustan and Renaissance Italy taken seriously shows up in his four-page bibliography (a good one) and his concluding offer to correct any errors in citation.

As I was finishing up the book I was beginning to think how embarrasing my comparison of Rushdie to Jack Vance was. But then I picked up Vance's Showboat World and immediately saw why I had made the comparison and why it was not ridiculous after all. Vance and Rushdie have written magic realism (or science fiction and fantasy, let's be honest). Their novels often involve long journeys through exotic and mundane landscapes. Their characters often sadly reflect on the peculiar customs of the people they meet. The big difference between the two is that Rushdie anchors his tales in reality (you could call The Enchantress history)while Vance just makes things up (his glory).

Yes, Rushdie is the better writer, but Vance is his cousin.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Houston schools don't need libraries -- Boko Haram, Texas style

I was reading about the military coup in the west African State of Niger, and ran across a reference to Boko Haram, a Islamist terror organization that has been making trouble for years now in that region. I have often thought Boko Haram deserves a prize for honesty in extremist politics for the name (which, admittedly, is not its official name). Haram is derived from Arabic and can mean forbidden, corrupt or bad. Boko is from Hausa, a major West African language and now means something like Western Civilization (which is bad).

But look at the word boko. Doesn't it just scream to be translated as "book?" It's not like people in Nigeria, a major center of Boko Haram, aren't familiar with English.

Maybe this is just a fantasy, one if those coincidences common in language studies. No, Hausa is not related to Basque, or Sumerian.

If Boko Haram gets a rather ironic prize for its informal name what do these Houston school boards deserve:
HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Students at dozens of Houston ISD schools will return in a few weeks without librarians and to former libraries that have been converted into disciplinary spaces. New Superintendent Mike Miles announced earlier this summer that librarian and media specialist positions would be eliminated at the 28 original schools being overhauled under his reform program, New Education System (NES). Both the librarian and media specialist positions are similar, but librarians typically have an advanced degree in library science. HISD said the 57 additional schools that opted into NES will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. "We understand the significance of certain programs associated with libraries and will strive to maintain those valuable offerings," the statement said.</blockquote> See the bold line above for the key sentence.

Friday, June 30, 2023

Robert Reich, well-known political insider, says "Run for office? No thanks!"

Many of you readers have probably thought about this. I have too. But this brought into focus an important aspect of democratic politics that often doesn't get discussed.

I've included some big excerpts from this piece, but I urge you to read the whole thing:
Friends, Several of you have written asking if I might consider running for office. Well, I have an announcement to make. Brace yourselves. I’m not running — for president or anything else. I’ve run once before (for the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts in 2002) and learned I don’t have what it takes. Before I ran, I thought I knew everything there was to know about getting elected — which made me think I could get elected, too. I’d been involved in dozens of campaigns. I’d advised candidates running for governor, senator, and president. I’d worked for three presidents. I was wrong. It takes several unique personality traits to successfully run for a major public office. I don’t have them

First, you need to be sufficiently narcissistic to be able to sell yourself to voters (and anyone you need to help bankroll your campaign). In 2002, so many Massachusetts residents urged me to run that I thought voters (and funders) would flock to me once I announced. But the moment I said I was actually running, the burden of proof instantly shifted onto me. Even my most ardent supporters wanted to know: What made me think I would be a good governor? Many of the people who I assumed would be generous with their dollars in support of my campaign became skinflints overnight. Sure, I could promote policy ideas — I’d done it all my life — but I was terrible at promoting myself. It felt excruciatingly embarrassing. Telling complete strangers why they should be enthusiastic about me made me want to crawl into a hole and disappear. Dialing for dollars was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had.

Donald Trump is a masterful self-promoter because he’s a pathological narcissist. He boasts about himself nonstop and has probably done so since he was an infant. No matter that his bragging requires dangerous lies, vile smears, law-breaking, and a grandiosity that would cause normal people to cringe; he does it all without moral constraint. It’s all he does. He’s the extreme. But you’ve got to be big on self-promotion to get anywhere in electoral politics.

Second, you need to be wildly extroverted. By this I mean you get more energy out of every encounter with a total stranger — every handshake, pat on the back, morsel of conversation — than the energy you lose in such an encounter. So by the end of a day of such encounters, you end up more energized than at the start. Bill Clinton lived off this contact energy...

Third, you need to be a method actor. You have to be able to will yourself into feeling whatever a situation demands, so you come off as authentic. Ronald Reagan was a master of method acting, presumably because it had been his career before politics. Clinton was almost as good. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, far less so. Trump is fairly good at this. Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were lousy method actors; even when they told the truth, they seemed to be lying.
Lots more good stuff in the original post!

Monday, June 26, 2023

Mars is Heaven: an interesting discussion

 Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn start by talking about Ray Bradbury's classic story "Mars is Heaven" and go off in all sorts of interesting directions.  A sample:

Walter Kirn: Here’s the reason why witch trials, panics and spy hunts are perpetually amusing, especially to the Puritan who has traditionally repressed his sexual drive and needs other forms of entertainment: they are fun. Let’s think back to the experience of a little kid at the time of the Salem witch hunts. You got to peek through people’s windows. You got to gossip about their liaisons in the woods. You got to run around. You were a junior detective, and everybody turns into a junior detective in a witch hunt or a moral panic. Everybody gets to turn somebody in, find a clue, overhear a damaging conversation. And then there are the punishments and the hangings that ensue. There are the trials themselves. And that general air of intrigue and excitement that replaces maybe an inadequate sexual life, or a lack of accomplishment, or even maybe failure of other ambitions.

So witch hunts are fun and Puritans know that, and they’re especially fun for them. And so why not have a permanent ongoing top to bottom all the time, completely justified in the name of anti-racism or anti anti-feminism – it’s not fair that they should be these periodic things that happened only in the 1950s, and then again now. They should happen every day from morning till night. There should be the opportunity to turn somebody in, discover guilt, sneak around, get concealed information, and also then watch on a sort of lag the people who got turned in last week get their punishment. And so witch hunt nation is fun nation. They call it a panic because it’s named after the god Pan, and what’s the god Pan? The god of fun.

Some quick reflections:  That this discussion of a 1948 story is taken so seriously in 2023 underlines something I've often thought, that sf, even if it is overrun by stories of superheroes and supervillains blowing up planets and time-travel paradoxes, is often more relevant than "realistic," mainstream fiction, even the stories of superheroes etc.  Are there superheroes?  Well, noone can doubt that there are supervillains. </p>

Taibbi and Kirn are fascinated by the power of the image of Puritan New England.  I find it a bit much.  I wonder if they have read Kim Stanley Robinson's three books, Red  Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars.  I consider them taken together to be the masterpiece of the American Utopian tradition in science fiction, the grown-up, updated version of Robert Heinlein's juvenile novel Red Planet.  Which was written about the same time as "Mars is Heaven."  Heinlein has been scarily prescient more than once: His Starship Troopers inspired the excellent response, Joe Haldeman's Forever War, whose title has long ago become part of ordinary discourse.  And Heinlein back in the 40s wrote, in Revolt in 2100 a picture of a successful Trumpist/Fundamentalist regime (and the revolution that overthrows it).

I've picked some nits but I recommend Taibbi/Kern nonetheless.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

There's a lesson here somewhere

 A headline from a Washington Post site:

Cash-strapped Taliban selling tickets to ruins of Buddhas it blew up.

Here's a shocker -- Landlord kills tenants who asked for repairs

The Maple (a Canadian progressive newsletter) directed  me to this under-reported story:

On Saturday, a landlord in Hamilton, Ont., shot and killed his two tenants who had approached him asking for repairs to be made to their unit. He took aim at them and fired his gun as they were fleeing from the home. A few hours later, police shot and killed the landlord following a standoff at the house, in which the landlord and the tenants had both lived in.

There is much more about the pressures on renters in Ontario and the rest of the country, but this is the heart of it.

Now I am no Marxist but an over-used phrase is appropriate here:  class warfare.  The rest of the Maple report refers to the large number of landlords who sit in the Canadian Parliament and the great advantages that landlords have in disputes, even when tenants exercise their right to appeal what they think are unreasonable rent increases,  The article goes in some detail about both topics.

Last year a trucker-led march  (the "Freedom Convoy") besieged the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa protesting masking policies meant to control the spread of COVID.  Others blocked the most important border crossing (Windsor-Detroit).  This march did not get a lot of sympathy from the population at large,  in part because the truckers were unbelievably rude.  Their main tactic was honking their horns day and night for weeks, making the lives of people who live in downtown Ottawa hellish.  The protesters claimed to be (or at least represent) the people but harassed people using the streets or going in and out of their homes.  Their "power" went to their heads and the way they used it

Since the Convoy I have a vision of another march:  the Rent March. There are far more people suffering from impossible rent increases and the impossibilities of buying a house than there are anti-vaxxers.  Many people have to choose between rent and food.  If they got organized and marched on Queen's Park (how people refer to Ontsrio's provincial parliament, it might be a very large march indeed.  Maybe this seems unlikely, but the pressure is building up.

Oh, tes. After the landlord had killed his tenants, the police showed up and tried to arrest him. Their efforts were in vain, and they shot and killed him.  If this was the initial skirmish of class warfare, nobody won.




Saturday, June 03, 2023

Are we worse off than Bronze Age peasants? Maybe.

Indrajit Samarajiva ( watching How to Get Rich on Netflix:

Americans think they’re kings, but they’re really a nation of debt peons. They have even less hope of amargi (return to mother, or debt forgiveness) than a Bronze Age slave. Those poor saps at least got debt relief every new ruler or so. Westerners live under one constant regime of usury and all they can choose is the color, red or blue.

All of this is outside the ambit of Ramit’s show, and that’s fine. I wanted to hate the show because A) the title and B) because most popular media about ‘personal finance’ makes it all about personal responsibility for what is fundamentally societal failure.

There’s one season where a young, orphaned man (Frank) in $200,000 of student loan debt is going through a pile of snail mail that he’s been afraid to open. It’s people offering him loans, credit cards, and various forms of debt. This is just a motherless child that is constantly preyed upon by rich usurers, and he’s expected to think his way out of it, and bear the burden of failure alone?

The very existence of student loan debt is crazy, the idea is that someone at 17 or 18 makes this decision that makes them a debt slave for life? It’s entrapment. In the Bronze Age children were taken into slavery for debts and we think that awful, but that’s what the American education system has become. And in the Bronze Age they at least got amargi now and then, debts were forgiven. Today the average American dies in debt, and then the usurers come and prey on their children. It’s no land of the free. It’s a nation of debt slaves with strong mythology, that’s all.

I say that it’s fine for the show to not address this, because Ramit’s general point is A) about just helping these people and B) helping them talk about money with each other. One couple remarks that they didn’t think this would be couples counseling, but it really is. Money (and financial ‘infidelity’) is one of the biggest pressures in marriage and money can be very difficult to talk about. I am much poorer than my wife and this used to be a problem until we had health problems that put everything in perspective. But we still struggle to talk about money without getting huffy. Whereas we have a culture of sharing to fall back on, what I observe on the show is that western couples have it twice as hard.

Within marriages they have separate finances, where one couple is earning $150,000 and the other hustling for $30,000 and they still split the bills. Or where one is drowning in debt that the other could pay off and they just don’t

People have so internalized capitalist individualization that it has consumed the very idea of marriage and family. People live in what looks like families, but maintain the rigid division of capitalism within their own households. And they carry so much shame with them about money that it gets in between what should be a sacred bond.

One gay man within a marriage said that he felt like he wasn’t contributing, and refused to take help by saying it was better for him to ‘learn’ by paying usurers. It’s sad how much people have internalized systemic abuse. They’re victims of predatory money lenders who think it’s their fault. Another couple — also making $150,000 plus — frets about being able to ‘retire’ their house-cleaner mother who’s still working two jobs well into old age. She came from Colombia to find a better life for her family, and this is somehow it. That man says he was ‘lucky to be born here’, but was he? This is the traumatized tale of the immigrant, where America and the historical White Empire destroys countries, and then the scattered refugees are supposed to be thankful for the opportunity to serve as debt slaves within Empire’s household. People always talk about migrating for a ‘better life’ but the real question is why was life made so bad that they had to move in the first place.

Now this son of an immigrant takes a month-long Italian vacation after promising his mother she could retire in two years. But as Ramit told him, he could retire her now. The toxicity of the individual is such that he’d rather go on vacation and buy a multi-family investment property than let his mother move in and take care of her.

I feel inclined to judge him, but after watching the show I actually don’t. He is just prey to a bad culture, not a bad person. The family has been destroyed so thoroughly in the West that even filial piety is considered another consumer choice, not a dharmic duty. What a deeply fallen world.

Monday, May 29, 2023

Robin Hood (1922)

Paul Halsall, a benefactor of humanity, has updated the list of medieval movies he long ago posted at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook. The updated version is a lot bigger than the original and very well organized.

One particular listing caught my eye: the one for Douglas Fairbanks' lavish version of Robin Hood. Fairbanks was not only the star, but the producer and the chief scriptwriter:and the full title of the movie is Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. The movie is out of copyright and this allowed someone to post it on YouTube.

I don't know what I expected I would think of the movie, but I was surprised how easy it was to like it as sheer entertainment. My wife, watching the film out of the corner of her eye, had the same reaction. It was not "good for 1922," but "good."

But regarding it as an artifact of 1922, it was very interesting. The movie had an estimated budget of about a million US dollars (how much would that be to day -- a billion?) which made even Fairbanks consider abandoning it at one point. I have to wonder how long he considered this: fifteen minutes? fifteen seconds? This was his baby!

You can certainly see where the money went. Castles are a visual theme and they are very impressive -- huge -- and probably bigger than any real 12th century castles west of Constantinople. How did they build them, and the interior palace interiors? There are a vast number of courtiers and ladies or maids, all in reasonably authentic or at least evocative and very decorative costumes. I have the feeling that the costume budget might have been enough to break the bank (:-)! Do have a look!

American politics on the state level

I'm guessing that my readers don't pay much attention to the politics of the various states of the USA. It's a safe guess since hardly anyone does. If you are an American, you can test this proposition by answering this question: who is the attorney general of your state? Then reflect on the fact that even if you are not a Texan, the attorney general of Texas may have a big effect on, say, abortion law in your state.

If you want to understand the role of the states in current American politics, let me recommend a podcast from Talking Points Memo, Laboratories of Democracy? .I consider Josh Marshall, the creator of TPM, one of the best informed and smartest political commentators around. I particularly value his historical knowlege and his willingness to compare developments and institutions around the world. This makes him a better historian of American democracy.

Yes, he is more than a journalist.

Jacques le Goff on history

The extraordinary French historian Jacques le Goff has died at the age of 90 (which age no longer seems as old as it did only a decade or so ago).

I have nothing original to say about his life and work, so I will leave that task to those who know him and it better. You can see an obituary at href=""

. The obituary includes a quotation from Le Goff on what historians (should) do. This is not particularly original but makes some good points very briefly. I occasionally want to point people with naive views of history to something better, and sure enough, here it is.

“History is not given, history is constructed by the historian. But the historian cannot do just anything. He must make his construction with the aid of materials, documents. I have personally adopted Michel Foucault’s position that documents are not innocent. Documents have been made to impress, to form thinking, they are what you might call monument/documents.

We must maintain toward these monument/documents a critical spirit; but if this critical spirit leads to a purely deconstructive “shredding” of what is being set out before us, we lose ourselves in an intellectual anarchy from which nothing good can emerge.

So I think that not only is it necessary that we be moored to documents, I think we must also remind ourselves that historical truth is not one. It is not clear. We no longer believe, like Ranke, that we can recount things such as they really happened, such as they were. But if we don’t believe that there is a historical truth, even if we approach it only through interpretations and approximations, then history, which has made a meritorious effort to be scientific… then we historians may just as well resign ourselves to writing historical novels.”

– Jacques le Goff, in an interview with Historical Reflections from 1993.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Monday, May 22, 2023

Medievalism and fakery: A review you might want to read

Just now I've been reading a review of Bak, János M., Patrick J. Geary, and Gábor Klaniczay, eds. Manufacturing a Past for the Present: Forgery and Authenticity in Medievalists Texts and Objects in Nineteenth-Century Europe. I am unlikely to read the book, but just the review of this collection of essays has made me re-evaluate my understanding of history, or rather the history of scholarship.

My interest in history originated in a desire to establish and understand the true facts of history, and correcting misunderstandings in previous scholarship. In my callow youth it was easy to think that historical writing could be divided into "wrong" (or mostly wrong) and right (which established the true facts. Of course in grad school I was exposed to a more sophisticated understanding of how history in its many forms is created. .

This book made me aware of how important "forgery" has been in the overall project of history, with its focus on the 19th century, when nationalism created a need for new histories that validated claims for a new understanding of the present, which provided a basis for new loyalties and priorities. Think of Walter Scott. Sure, he wrote historical fiction, honestly labelled as such, but he created such compelling pictures of various parts of the past that anyone who knows anything about European history is still affected today. (Robin Hood; Richard Lionheart; the Crusades; Scotland.)

Many people took a different route to creating the past that they wanted: Forgery. That word strongly implies criminal activity for profit, but this collection shows how complex the phenomenon is, and how much forgery there was in the 19th century.

The human dimension of arcane research

From the Times of Israel:
Today, the vast majority of the geniza is digitized, allowing researchers to access it from their homes. Still, the Cairo geniza attracts a small, quirky group of dedicated researchers that often collaborate on research. “It’s a paradise for researchers, because we’re not too many, but everyone is a specialist in one topic,” said Martínez Delgado. “If you have a question, the other person will stop his work to help you, it’s really a paradise.”
If you don't know anything about the Cairo Geniza, the whole article is a good introduction. As it is for research in ancient manuscripts. I've seen an autograph copy of one of Thomas Aquinas works and just a glance taught me something important.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The face of Ukrainian resistance

I'm grateful to the Ukrainian journalists who made available this interview with the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valery Zaluzhny. He is remarkably confident of victory, attributing it to the morale of Ukranian people, and the eight years (note well!) of preparation for the inevitable Russian invasion.He credits the success Ukraine has enjoyed to the dedication of the Ukrainian people. Here are his words from my notes:
...this is what every [war] has in commmon since the professional military corps starts the war and then teachers, engineers and accountants end it. Everything [falls] on the shoulders of these ordinary people.
The whole interview.

Saturday, May 13, 2023

A Golden Age

We are living in a Golden Age.

If we look at the scientific and technological progress of our era, there is no doubt that this is true.

A tiny instance: Scientists have long been puzzled by how single-cell organisms (such as bacteria) evolved into multi-cell organisms (including any living being you can see). Thought experiments emphasized the difficulties of this transition. Then someone (can't identify at the moment) came up with the right approach and in the course of a year provoked a bunch of single-celled yeast to make that transition.

I hope that you can appreciate the brilliance (but see below) of this experiment and the potential the knowledge acquired has for further understanding of -- life.

For my purposes the proper context is equally astonishing research in any field you can name, astrophyics and medical research being just two I can name. Re: AI, Artificial Intelligence, well "it's too soon to say," to reuse a quip from a famous Chinese dictator.

Are we so smart then?

Look at the image below. It's Rembrant's famous depiction of an anatomy experiment. Anatomy was on the cutting edge of medical progress in the 17th century, and Rembrant is generally agreed to be the best painter of his time. This is what is called the Dutch Golden Age, and the Dutch are often praised for the religiously tolerant and prosperous environment that made impressive progress possible. Yet it is also true that the Dutch were enthusiastic colonizers and slavers. The Dutch colonizers took control of Indonesia, they created an empire in all but name. The Dutch at home were solidly bourgeois in their political values, using councils to restrain the power of monarchical ideals. But when they handed over power in the "Indies" to their own East India Company (VOC), the same Dutchmen built an imperial capital, Batavia, where the VOC's viceroy was treated with more than royal honors.

The Golden Age of the 17th Century, which was hardly restricted to the Netherlands (remember Galileo!) was in fact played out before a background of horrific wars, notably the Thirty Years War, when the Dutch, like many other Europeans resisted the efforts of imperial Spain to create its own empire. From the Dutch point of view, this took Eighty years.

So you see, the question of Golden Ages is a complicated one. The best one can say is that sometimes a culture is created that allows for talented (not necessarily brilliant) researchers to do valuacculture to form, in which valuable work is made possible, because they can work and work together without being prevented by the authorities.

Sometimes the authorities are even willing to fund science, and substantial progress is made. Golden Ages result.

But while some of us may enjoy the products of the Golden Age, its brilliance will not save us.

Image: Rembrant, The Anatomy Lesson.

The English band King Crimson wrote a song attempting the Dutch point of view, The Night Watch:

I'll fix links later

Friday, May 12, 2023

Hildegard of Bingen and the wildfires in Alberta

Here's an incomplete post. I hope to add to it later.

I don't know a lot about Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess who lived in the Rhineland in the twelfth century except that the word "polymath" could have been invented for her. If a subject was important, she had something valuable and original to say about it. (note to self: did she have anything to say about chivalry? Or perhaps militia?)

This morning on the CBC Radio show The Current (which I recommend highly), Matt Galloway was interviewing the author of a book on the Alberta wildfires and what they mean for our future. I didn't catch his name or the book's title, but I hope to fill them in later. Anyway, this guy approached our relationship with fire from a number of different angles, all of them interesting, many alarming, but not from a hopeless point of view.

He concluded by citing at length how Hildegard's idea of viriditas (here, green power?) is relevant to reconstruction from the damage done by these wildfires.

I told you she had something to say on just about everything!

Go Hildegard!