Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And then last night on CBC TV...

...Newsworld's Passionate Eye documentary program to be specific, I saw a show called
Pakistan's Taliban Generation. It was about how the Taliban are spreading their influence in Pakistan, and not just in the tribal areas. It was scary, in part because it was a no BS presentation. Unfortunately you cannot see this on the CBC Internet site, but you can read about it here, and perhaps hunt up another broadcast where you can see it.

CBC One at its best

I spent a lot of time in the car this past weekend, much of it listening to the CBC. I am quite the CBC fan, it is one of the things that made me a Canadian, but it doesn't always suit my mood. Those of you who listen too know what I mean. This time however, I won the radio lottery.

On Saturday morning's edition of Go!, Brent Bambury conducted "The Hunt for Canada's Alt Anthem." As the website puts it:

In tough uncertain times, it always pays to have a contingency plan... for EVERYthing. This morning, GO! is on the hunt for Canada's alt anthem.

We love O Canada, but we wonder what its hip 2009 B-side would sound like.
Of course, this idea had great potential for lameness, even lameness on a cosmic scale. But although one of the three candidate songs was only true and apt, the other two were BRILLIANT! One of them had me sitting in the car with my mouth agape, amazed (not for the first time) at how, sometimes, people can rise to the occasion. With so much mean-minded insanity out there in the world, it was great to hear some fun, sane stuff coming from my compatriots.

Was this what Marconi was aiming for?

Here is a page where you can listen to them yourself. They are the three excerpts listed under 03/28/2009, from Amanda Martinez, Tiny Bill Cody and the Word Burglar.

Go ahead, take a chance on the mothership.

On Sunday, on the way home, the show Tapestry was equally good in a completely different way. Usually Tapestry drives me a bit nuts, it being a show that specializes in earnest interviews with people about their unremarkable spiritual experiences. I only listen to it in the car, and not always then. Sunday's show, however, was fascinating. Mary Hynes talked to Michael Muhammad Knight, a formerly Catholic convert to Islam from upper New York State (the Burned Over District lives!). Discouraged by his inability to be a good Muslim by his own standards, Knight wrote a novel about a fictional punk rock house full of young punk rock Muslims, all of them searching for the true way. Knight started photocopying the book for would-be readers, and now The Taqwacores is a hit. You can hear the whole interview here.

I found it interesting that Knight shares an idea I've had-- that any reasonably successful religious tradition expands to include many disparate elements; as he said, "Islam is what Muslims do," and quite evidently they do many different things. I came to this as a historian, he as a believer. It was not surprising to me to hear such a thought from an American from the Burned Over District (a region known for new, even anarchic movements since the early 19th century). I would be happy if I heard people from Pakistan same the same thing occasionally. But then, maybe they do and I'm just too far away to hear it.

By the way, the current government wants to cut back on all this wonderful stuff from the CBC -- the Conservatives have always hated it. If you value the CBC and its potential, do something. Call or write your MP.

Fragmentary: the Palestinian Territories of the "West Bank," imagined as an archipelago



From Strange Maps, which quotes the creator, Julien Bousac:

The map is not about ‘drowning’ or ‘flooding’ the Israeli population, nor dividing territories along ethnic lines, even less a suggestion of how to resolve the conflict.


And SM says further:

Mr Boussac took advantage of the resulting archipelago effect “to use typical tourist maps codes (mainly icons) to sharpen the contrast between the fantasies raised by seemingly paradise-like islands and the Palestinian Territories grim reality.” The map does have a strong vacationy vibe to it – but whether that is because of the archipelago-shaped subject matter, or due to the cheerful colour scheme is a matter for debate.

Those colours, incidentally, denote urban areas (orange), nature reserves (shaded), zones of partial autonomy (dark green) and of total autonomy (light green). Totally fanciful are of course the dotted lines symbolising shipping links, the palm trees signifying protected beachland, and the purple symbols representing various aspects of seaside pleasure. The blue icon, labelled Zone sous surveillance (‘Zone under surveillance’) has some bearing on reality, as the locations of the warships match those of permanent Israeli checkpoints.

Some of the paradisiacally named islands include Ile au Miel (Honey Island), Ile aux Oliviers (Isle of the Olive Trees), Ile Sainte (Holy Island) and Ile aux Moutons (Sheep Island), although the naming of Ile sous le Mur (Island beneath the Wall) constitutes a relapse into the grimness of the area’s reality.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Advice to potential grad students


Academics often wonder whether it is fair to encourage students to go on to grad school in pursuit of the PhD and academic employment. There are certainly easier ways to make money. The job market has been consistently poor since the early 1970s (after a few years when many many professors were hired in an unprecedented situation, the result of the baby boom), it takes years of preparation to gain the degree, and there's the whole issue of deferred income, which you may or may not ever make up. As I say, if you are smart and determined enough to get a PhD, there are easier ways to make money.

Over at Glossographia, a blog I have just started to follow, Stephen Chrisomalis has one of the best answers I have heard to this question. The entire post is worth reading, but here are a couple of key paragraphs:

I think that the sorts of people who should be considering graduate school are those for whom the actual process of going to grad school is enjoyable and rewarding for its own sake (despite its struggles). One thing I do tell my students is to ask themselves, “If I spend six years in grad school, even if I never get a job, will it still have been worth it?” If they can honestly answer yes, that the process of learning and intellectual exploration is worth it for its own sake, then they should do it; if not, then they shouldn’t. And again the money comes into play – if one has to go into massive debt to do it, then it’s certainly less likely to be worth it.

And even further, I worry that while Benton is right about the job market, and right about the need to inform students of the realities of the market, he’s asking more of academics than anyone would ask of other professionals. We don’t tell artists not to do art, and the chances of financial success as an artist are far, far dimmer than the prospects for an academic. We don’t tell baseball players not to try out for the minor leagues just because the chances of them ever playing major league ball are minuscule. (The baseball analogy is one that a friend of mine mentioned to me some years ago and that I have been using ever since to talk to non-academics about the model under which academic employment works.)

I couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, I didn't.

Image: Sandy Koufax.

Obama's Afghan policy -- nuts?

Dan Froomkin, one of the few sensible voices at the Washington Post, had a good column today on Obama's Afghanistan pronouncement. Froomkin often counterposes critical voices in the media to the news of the day, and today he did so with good effect, showing that Obama's so-to-speak policy in Afghanistan can't stand up to the critique that Sen. Obama made of George W. Bush's Iraq policy a few years ago: what if it doesn't work? What's the exit strategy?

Just as worthwhile as the Froomkin column are the comments by readers that follow. They are very instructive, mixing the usual fantasyland hawkish overconfidence with some reality-based criticism.

I wonder if any of my students who are now reading David Edwards' Before Taliban think that Obama's plan has any chance at all?

Another excellent seminar

Unlike this phone picture of him, Richard Wenghofer's presentation in the history seminar series was not at all fuzzy: it was an excellent conclusion to an excellent year's worth of papers.

"The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens" argued that we can trace the invention of the notion of racial distinctiveness and a feeling of racial superiority, even to other Greeks, among the Athenians as they democratized their polity over the course of a century or so. In the old days when noble families have a lot of clout, and intermarried freely with nobles in other cities, it was commonly accepted that Athenians were descended from a variety of Greek and non-Greek peoples. When the poorer citizens gained legal and political rights, they sought to restrict citizenship to those of purely Athenian descent, and eventually succeeded in doing so. This restrictive definition of citizenship, argued Richard, affected Athenian views of their origins. It came to be accepted Athenians were autochthonous, sprung from the Attic earth. Not only were Athenians distinct from their neighbors, but they were superior as well, and superior in a racial sense because their superiority was inherited from their ancestors. So we have a record of known political choices and definitions adopted for practical reasons leading to an ideological view of all past history, one that is not particularly attractive. Athenians came to regard themselves as the only true Greeks who had taught their neighbors what Greek traits they possessed, and whom they deserved to rule.

After that, go back to Pericles' funeral oration and see if it doesn't seem a lot less attractive! And as I said here after I read Thucydides the last time, that was the only part of the whole book that made the Greeks seem admirable!

I can't wait to see the article version of Richard's argument.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Medieval Gallery at the British Museum

The British Museum has reorganized its medieval ( 1050- 1500) holdings. They are quite proud of the new display and the Times Online description makes it sound quite wonderful. There is a video here that gives a taste of it.

Image: the 15th century Fishpool hoard, a lost treasure of over 1000 gold coins from the Wars of the Roses.

Reminder: Wenghofer speaks on racism and civic identity in ancient Athens -- Wed., Mar. 25, 10:30

Monday, March 23, 2009

From English Russia: a variety of Russian women


Here.

Image: World War II veteran.

One sentence that says so much about the Middle East


Concluding an article published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
Given current regional trends, the fight to reconstruct Gaza is a contest that Israel, Fatah and Washington cannot afford to lose.
In other words, on the issue of who controls reconstruction funds, these three are allies against Hamas.

Image: Gaza damage.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Even smaller wars wreck lots of things

Two discouraging stories from McClatchy news service:

The first is a video report on the lack of services in Iraq, with show and tell. Highly recommended. You will learn a lot about the modern world, and life on the Planet of Slums.

Then there is this:
Israeli soldiers say army rabbis framed Gaza as religious war.

Rabbis affiliated with the Israeli army urged troops heading into Gaza to reclaim what they said was God-given land and "get rid of the gentiles" — effectively turning the 22-day Israeli intervention into a religious war, according to the testimony of a soldier who fought in Gaza.

Literature passed out to soldiers by the army's rabbinate "had a clear message — we are the people of Israel, we came by a miracle to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, now we need to struggle to get rid of the gentiles that are interfering with our conquest of the land," the soldier told a forum of Gaza veterans in mid-February, just weeks after the conflict ended.

A transcript of the testimony given at an Israeli military academy at the Oranim college on Feb. 13 was obtained on Friday by McClatchy and also published in Haaretz, one of Israel's leading dailies. The soldier, identified as "Ram," a pseudonym to protect his identity, gave a scathing description of the atmosphere as the Israeli army went to war.

Just what we needed, more holy warriors.

Image: work on a sewage treatment plant in Falluja, October 2008, not going well.
Among many other reasons: ""The project file lacked any documentation to support that the provisional Iraqi government wanted this project in the first place," [instead of even more pressing needs]. Rather, it appears that occupation authorities conceived of this project "for the Iraqis."

Friday, March 20, 2009

John Law and the Mississippi Bubble

For decades and decades now, the National Film Board of Canada has been financing, producing, and distributing amusing and informative films. Now just about the entire output of the NFB is available free for nothing at their website. My colleague Françoise Noël points out that one of their featured items at the moment is a cartoon account of one of the first get rich quick schemes to wreck an economy with paper money and inflated assets -- The Mississippi Bubble. Go here and learn about the most infamous of Scottish economists, John Law.

Richard Wenghofer speaks: Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens -- Wed. March 25, 10:30 AM, F307

From James Murton:

The final History Department Seminar Series of this year will feature Richard Wenghofer of the Classics program, speaking on "The Racialization of Civic Identity in Classical Athens."

Richard's paper will argue, contrary to received wisdom, that racism did exist in ancient Athens, and it emerged in lockstep with, and as an indirect consequence of, the evolution of democratic political structures and their concomitant social and political ideologies.

Wednesday, March 25, 10:30 am, F307

Refreshments will be served.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Song for the day...


...and never more timely than now:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don't stand in the doorway
Don't block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin.
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin.


I dare say those walls and windows are shakin' and rattlin' right now.

The worst part about going to university

xkcd nails it.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Irish links for St. Patrick's Day

Quid plura? contemplates the Pogues and their peculiar brand of Irish internationalism.

In the Middle on an older version of Irish internationalism.

And from the Washington Post, hard times in new Ireland.

Feeling insecure? Blame the Vikings!

Ever wonder how historical images and reputations get propagated, reworked, and repropagated?

Magistra et Mater,
a real medieval historian, was struck by a UK press denunciation of supposed efforts to supposedly minimize Viking rape and pillage. She asked:

I want instead to ask another question: why is it so necessary to modern Britain that the Vikings were violent? This can’t simply just be put down to right-wing prejudices about immigration (although this crops up in the Daily Mail): Simon Schama had pretty much the same attitude to Vikings in his History of Britain (BTW, the best takedown of Schama’s TV history style I’ve yet seen is here).

There is a very interesting contrast here with an earlier British attitude. If you look at some of the classic popular histories from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Our Island Story or 1066 and All That, then the Danes (not yet the Vikings) are simply one among many violent attackers of early Britain. There is nothing that particularly distinguishes their violence from that of Romans, Saxons or Normans. The same attitude is still shown by Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories. But generally in Britain, it is now the Vikings alone whose violent reputation must be defended or revised: no-one outside history facilities really cares how violent the Saxons were or whether Hengist was coarser than Horsa. Why does Viking violence now spark the imagination in a way it didn’t 100 years ago? There’s been the discovery and display of much more material culture (as in Jorvik), but we’ve got more Saxon stuff as well.

It’s also not a reflection of modern politics in the normal sense: there are no significant anti-Scandinavian prejudices here. If you’re going to demonise the EU via the past, then Normans as proto-French and Saxons as proto-Germans are a better bet. But if you look at which aspects of the Vikings are remembered, you get the clue. It’s not Canute/Cnut or even the Danelaw which strike the modern imagination, and King Alfred is surprisingly absent. It’s the raids, from Lindisfarne in 793 onwards. What this country remembers about the Vikings is the sudden alarm of longboats appearing at a ‘peaceful settlement’ (this was the main trope in Simon Schama). It’s not the threat of invasion and conquest (Britain being ‘overrun with fire and the sword’) that sends a thrill of terror up British spines now. It’s the small-scale, unprovoked, seemingly random and meaningless violence that does that: the Vikings as the first terrorists.

So there you have it, cherry-picking of useful images once again...

Image:
Re-enactors at the Dublin Viking Festival.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Friday, March 13, 2009

Breaking: United States Department of Justice promises to obey international law

Here is part of a DoJ announcement taken from Talking Points Memo:
In a filing today with the federal District Court for the District of Columbia, the Department of Justice submitted a new standard for the government's authority to hold detainees at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. The definition does not rely on the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief independent of Congress's specific authorization. It draws on the international laws of war to inform the statutory authority conferred by Congress. It provides that individuals who supported al Qaeda or the Taliban are detainable only if the support was substantial. And it does not employ the phrase "enemy combatant."

The Department also submitted a declaration by Attorney General Eric Holder stating that, under executive orders issued by President Obama, the government is undertaking an interagency review of detention policy for individuals captured in armed conflicts or counterterrorism operations as well as a review of the status of each detainee held at Guantanamo. The outcome of those reviews may lead to further refinements of the government's position as it develops a comprehensive policy.

"As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law," said Attorney General Holder. "The change we've made today meets each of those standards and will make our nation stronger."

Now let's see the follow-through. Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper may not care about the treatment of Omar Khadr, but I do.

Earl and Neal in dialogue -- "Cruelty in History: A Conversation" -- an appreciation

I always enjoy the seminars from the history seminar series here at Nipissing University, and today's was no exception. The subject was well-chosen, and the discussants did it justice. They actually were talking to each other, but without excluding the audience, which was numerous. Indeed, the audience was pulled right in and proved to have plenty to say. I include a couple of pictures.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Reminder: Earl and Neal talk about cruelty in history, Friday, March 13, 2:30 pm, Room A224

How pertinent is "cruelty" as a term of historical analysis? Is the historian who refers to a given custom, episode or individual "cruel" making a useful judgment, or one that obscures historical knowledge? In dwelling on "cruelty" in history do we sometimes run the risk of buying into the investments of particular audiences or interests? And how do we teach about cruelty in history without becoming sensationalistic or exploitative?

Derek Neal and Hilary Earl will explore these questions in a conversation that investigates cruelty (as defined both by historical actors and by present-day historians) in a range of historical settings from premodern times to the present, with particular focus on Dr. Earl's research into twentieth-century war and genocide.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Friday, March 06, 2009

Southwest Script


...has nothing to with Arizona or New Mexico. It is a script found on stones in southern Portugal and some neighboring parts of Spain. And I had never heard of it before I was directed to this AP story by Explorator. Here are some of the more interesting things I learned:

For more than two centuries, scientists have tried to decipher Southwest Script, believed to be the peninsula's oldest written tongue and, along with Etruscan from modern-day Italy, one of Europe's first. The stone tablet features 86 characters and provides the longest-running text of the Iron Age language ever found.

About 90 slate tablets bearing the ancient inscriptions have been recovered, most of them incomplete. Almost all were scattered across southern Portugal, though a handful turned up in the neighboring Spanish region of Andalucia.

Some of the letters look like squiggles. Others are like crossed sticks. One resembles the number four and another recalls a bow-tie. They were carefully scored into the slate. The text is always a running script, with unseparated words which usually read from right to left.

The first attempts to interpret this writing date from the 18th century. It aroused the curiosity of a bishop whose diocese encompassed this region where the earth keeps coughing up new fragments.

Almodovar, a rural town of some 3,500 people amid a gentle landscape of meadows punctuated by whitewashed towns, sits at the heart of the Southwest Script region. It created a museum two years ago where 20 of the engraved tablets are on show.

Though the evidence is gradually building as new tablets are found, researchers are handicapped because they are peering deep into a period of history about which they know little, says professor Pierre Swiggers, a Southwest Script specialist at the University of Leuven, Belgium. Scientists have few original documents and hardly any parallel texts from the same time and place in readable languages.

"We hardly know anything about (the people's) daily habits or religious beliefs," he says.

Southwest Script is one of just a handful of ancient languages about which little is known, according to Swiggers. The obscurity has provided fertile ground for competing theories about who wrote these words.

It is generally agreed the texts date from between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago. Most experts have concluded they were authored by a people called Tartessians, a tribe of Mediterranean traders who mined for metal in these parts — one of Europe's largest copper mines is nearby — but disappeared after a few centuries. Some scientists have proposed that the composers were other pre-Roman tribes, such as the Conii or Cynetes, or maybe even Celts who roamed this far south.

Another translation difficulty is that the writing is not standardized. It seems certain that it was adapted from the Phoenician and Greek alphabets because it copied some of their written conventions. However, it also tweaked some of those rules and invented new ones.

Experts have identified characters that represent 15 syllables, seven consonants and five vowels. But eight characters, including a kind of vertical three-pronged fork, have confounded attempts at comprehension.

There is more at the Yahoo news site.

Image: one reconstruction of Southwest script.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

You speak for me, Jon Stewart

Yesterday on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart played an old clip of a CNBC "business reporter" asking one of the biggest crooks on Wall Street whether it was fun being a billionaire. Stewart's response was entirely appropriate: "I don't know which of those guys I'd rather see in jail."

Turin Kinglist fragments rediscovered

Sometimes when we medievalists are feeling unloved, we can get a little self-righteous with our sources compared to people who study more recent eras which have for instance organized archives.

But imagine finding organizing and reinterpreting really ancient stuff, like the challenge recently covered in a Discovery News article:
Some newly recovered papyrus fragments may finally help solve a century-old puzzle, shedding new light on ancient Egyptian history.

Found stored between two sheets of glass in the basement of the Museo Egizio in Turin, the fragments belong to a 3,000-year-old unique document, known as the Turin Kinglist.

...

Believed to date from the long reign of Ramesses II, the papyrus contains an ancient list of Egyptian kings.

Scholars from the British Museum were tipped off to the existence of the additional fragments after reviewing a 1959 analysis of the papyrus by a British archaeologist. In his work, the archaeologist, Alan Gardiner, mentions fragments that were not included in the final reconstruction on display at the museum. After an extensive search, museum researchers found the pieces.

The finding could help more accurately piece together what is considered to be a key item for understanding ancient Egyptian history.

"This is one of the most important documents to reconstruct the chronology of Egypt between the 1st and 17th Dynasty," Federico Bottigliengo, Egyptologist at the Turin museum, told Discovery News.

"Unlike other lists of kings, it enumerates all rulers, including the minor ones and those considered usurpers. Moreover, it records the length of reigns in years, and in some cases even in months and days."

Written in an ancient Egyptian cursive writing system called hieratic, the papyrus was purchased in Thebes by the Italian diplomat and explorer Bernardino Drovetti in 1822. Placed in a box along with other papyri, the parchment disintegrated into small fragments by the time it arrived in Italy.

Some 48 pieces of the puzzle were first assembled by French Egyptologist Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832). Later, some other hundred fragments were pieced together by German and American archaeologist Gustavus Seyffarth (1796-1885).

One of the most important restorations was made in 1938 by Giulio Farina, the museum's director. But in 1959, Gardiner, the British Egyptologist, proposed another placement of the fragments, including the newly recovered pieces.

Now made of 160 fragments, the Turin Kinglist basically lacks two important parts: the introduction of the list and the ending.

"Some of the finest scholars have worked on the papyrus last century, but disagreement about its reconstruction has remained," Bottigliengo said. "It has been a never-ending puzzle."

"The enumeration of the kings does not continue after the 17th Dynasty. We are confident that the recovered fragments will help reconstruct some of the missing parts as well as add new knowledge to Egyptian history and chronology."

"It is possible that some dates will have to be changed and names of pharaohs will have to be added," Bottigliengo said.

Notice how many lifetimes it takes to make any progress?

Thanks to Explorator for the tip.

Neal and Earl in dialogue -- Friday, Mar 13, 2:30 pm, Rm A224.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Comet Lulin passes Saturn...


...at least, that's how it looks in this Astronomy Picture of the Day.
Comet Lulin is still crossing the southern sky.

This is what it was like



A hot moment in Kyrgyzstan's Kok-boru Presidential Cup.

I don't know what the rules of Kok-boru are, but if you like me have read the History of William Marshal, or even read about it, you just know that this is what the 12th-century tournaments recorded in that source were like.

From the Big Picture. And speaking of big pictures, click on the one above.

Scenes from the Russian Antarctic station



More at English Russia.

Ulfberht swords


Darrell Markewitz over at Hammered Out Bits tells the story that I never heard before -- about the most well-known Frankish metalworking establishment and the swords that it produced over the generations:

One of the oddities of history is that we know the name of a single swordmaker, most likely living near modern day Solingen on the Middle Rhine, in the mid 800's. These excellent quality blades are inlaid with that maker's name, with the earliest found dated to about 850. There are a huge number known with deposit dates spanning more that one mans life time (the latest is deposited about 1100). The raw number of surviving samples and the spread of dates suggests production in a 'workshop' spanning several generations... Ulfberht swords all have that makers name inlaid into the blade.

But that's not all...see what Darrell was inspired to do next. It's a serious re-enacter's treat.

Iran's complexities


I owe it to Laura Rozen at War and Piece for directing my attention to this article.

A New York Times op-ed columnist named Roger Cohen wrote an article recently describing the situation of Iranian Jews. He immediately was criticized in a number of places for painting all too rosy a picture. His reply -- that he knows a number of things about Iran, some good some bad -- is here. It contains this important sentence:

I return to this subject because behind the Jewish issue in Iran lies a critical one — the U.S. propensity to fixate on and demonize a country through a one-dimensional lens, with a sometimes disastrous chain of results.
I hope that will tempt you to read the rest.

Image: view of Isfahan (click for a bigger view).