Sunday, November 10, 2019

What all girls ~ 12 years old in Windsor talk about ALL THE TIME

Today at the Anglican church I attend it was a mixed bag.  Usually the pastor is really good, makes me think of famous medieval preachers (who unfortunately usually got into serious trouble).  His main sermon was quite all right but not one of his best.

The church service had begun with a Remembrance Day (Veterans' Day for you Yanks) which was put on for the benefit of the Scouts, the Wolf Cubs, and the Girl Guides.  This benefit I did not appreciate at all.There were quite a few of these kids and our pastor mixed with them, drawing them out in a humorous way.

Then it happened. He asked a group of maybe 12-year-old girls "What  is it that girls your age talk about all the time?"  And the girls answered in unison CARS.

Tell me, was I set up? This is Windsor, after all. Was somebody else set up?

Anyway I much appreciated that moment.

November 9 -- A day late in commemorations

I was not in good enough shape yesterday to draw attention to two things that meant something to me.

First was the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989).  This obviously meant a lot to people at the time.  Sadly, there is now an all-too-active right-wing movement in what used to be East Germany.  Here's one report on that phenomenon.  Angela Merkel grew up in the East and no doubt is discouraged that at the end of her political career she is still fighting the same fight.
Then I ran across a video of the group Genesis on YouTube, (link to be fixed)performing live in 1973, in Detroit, right across the river from me.  Is there a direct connection with the Cold War? Or, for that matter, Brexit?  But trouble was on its way.  Oh, trouble was here.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Alien anarchy -- a golden oldie

I promised to repost some of my favorite essays from this blog, and this is certainly worth rereading.  It's from Ursula K. Leguin,The Dispossessed.

Shevek, the anarchist from another planet, speaks to the dissatisfied people of the homeworld:

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when it is forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers and what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And
the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
I am here because you see in me the promise, the promise that we made 200 years ago in this city – the promise kept. We have kept it, on Anarres. We have nothing but our freedom. We have  nothing to give you but your own freedom. We have no law but the single principle of mutual aid between individuals. We have no government but the single principle of free association. We have no states, no nations, no presidents, no premiers, no chiefs, no generals, no bosses, no bankers, no landlords, no wages, no charity, no police, no soldiers, no wars. Nor do we have much else. We are sharers, not owners. We are not prosperous. None of us is rich. None of us is powerful. If it is Anarres you want, if it is the future you seek, then I tell you that you must come to it with empty hands. You must come to it alone, and naked, as the child comes into the world, into his future, without any past, without any property, wholly dependent on other people for his life. You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Gillingham on surrender and mercy in medieval warfare

 I just came across an article by John Gillingham, one of the best medieval military historians, where he argues that the laws and practices of war were not the same over the whole Middle Ages.  Note what he says about surrender and ransom:

But it is important to bear in mind the  exact title of  [Maurice]Keen’s book – The Laws of War in the Late Middle Ages – and  note that when he used phrases such as ‘in the middle ages’, he was not in fact thinking of  the whole period, only of its last two centuries  [i.e. the14th and 15th; Phase 2].The neglect of Phase One [up to about 1300] by historians of medieval war has not unnaturally led to them taking a cynical view of chivalry.. [since many people, during Phase One including women and children, were not allowed to surrender, but were killed or enslaved].

But had they measured the treatment of women, children and the poor by soldiers in the so-called ‘age of chivalry’[ Phase  2] against    some  ideal  standard, but against the standards that  had been  regarded as acceptable and  honourable in all previous ages, they might have taken a different view.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Portrait of Pocahontas

I was reading a Globe and Mail article on the inappropriatness of using (mainly indigenous)
imagery and costumes in a racist manner on Halloween.  Then I remembered this engraved portrait of Pocahontas in Jacobean English formal (court) clothing.  And I also remembered how astonished I was the first time I saw the portrait.

Quick quiz: So what was she calling herself at this point (1616)?


Friday, October 25, 2019

Guy Halsall on "Non-Migrating Barbarians: Late Antiquity in Northern Barbaricum"

Guy Halsall is one of the most interesting historians of Late Antiquity/the Early Middle Ages.  His main interests are "the Fall of the Roman Empire," Barbarian Migrations, and military history.  This year he's in Tubingen in Germany, where he will be able to refine his unorthodox ideas.  This week he delivered a provocative paper, of which this is an excerpt.

The first thing I want to say – I seem to have to keep saying this – is that the first part of my title should not be read as a statement or claim that there were no Barbarian Migrations: no migrating barbarians.  It is a simple statement of what the paper is about, which is to say, those barbarians who didn’t migrate or at least about those who, if they did migrate, came home again: surely – in anyone’s estimation – the overwhelming majority of ‘Barbarians’.  It is concerned with the territories north and west of the western Roman Empire between the later third and the earlier seventh century, which you might see as the heart of late antiquity, a ‘core late antiquity’, or even a short late antiquity. 

The question before us – and has been posed by me and others before – is whether there is a northern or north-western European late antiquity.  Does the ‘late antique paradigm’ apply to the regions beyond the Rhine-Danube limes, Hadrian’s Wall and the Irish Sea?  If it seems uncontroversial to speak of late antique Persia or late antique Arabia – areas beyond the Roman frontiers of course – why does it sound strange to speak of late antique Denmark or late antique Pictland – especially in an intellectual climate where we are encouraged to think of a ‘global late antiquity?  I don’t think that ‘global late antiquity’ (or for that matter the global middle ages) is an especially helpful term, but that is a separate issue from realising that the Mediterranean was not the centre of the world, that it was connected directly or indirectly to most other regions of the globe and their own centres, or that in some ways the various Eurasian imperial ‘centres’ – the Mediterranean, China and India – were all peripheral to each other and especially to the Eurasian steppe.

Of course, what makes late antiquity tricky as a descriptor in all these cases is that it is not merely a chronological term, but a paradigm or problematic.  To speak of the chronological period of the third-to-seventh centuries of the Christian Era across, say, the north-west of Europe – the far western Eurasian capes and islands as I sometimes like to call them, to try to decentre Europe – is possibly fine (I hope so as I want to write a book on that topic).  But that is subtly different from talking about ‘late antiquity’ in those regions. No one needs reminding of the origins of the concept of late antiquity, as a means of side-stepping the old idea that in the fifth century, with the Fall of the Western Roman Empire, the ancient world ended and the medieval world began (whatever that may have meant): a caesura in the whole of European and Mediterranean history.  Naturally, very famous scholars had been questioning the nature and reality of that caesura since the late nineteenth century, but the idea of a new periodisation stressing continuity seems to have been new, from the 1950s onwards, until – famously, classically – popularised in the general consciousness by Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity.

Equally, however, the notion has not gone uncritiqued.  The paradigm works best in geographical regions closest to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean, and thematically in areas like those in which Brown was most interested: religion and society; thought.  There might be something to the unity of the ‘short’ late antiquity I am discussing in the economic sphere as well, even if not in the way that Pirenne imagined – albeit before the notion of Late Antiquity had emerged.  However, the concentration of Late Antique scholarship on the East, and on themes like Christianity, the church, ideas, society and the holy, meant that the problem it had initially seemed to confront, that is to say the supposed ruptures of the fifth century, were in practice rather sidestepped.  To what extent had people ever generally supposed a huge rift in eastern Mediterranean society, religion, art and thought as a result of the fifth-century Barbarian Invasions or Migrations and the collapse of the Western Empire? (That’s not a merely rhetorical genuine question, by the way.) 

As I see it, the politics of the fifth-century west have remained something of a blind spot for the Late Antique paradigm.  How to explain the fact that the western Roman Empire existed in 400 but had at least ceased to be effective by 500 and was generally recognised by contemporaries to have disappeared by the middle quarters of the sixth century?  The solution appears to have accepted the paradigm of ‘barbarian invasion’ but to deny that this made much difference – in a way similar to Pirenne’s or Fustel’s interpretation (you might call this the ‘Weak Thesis’ of the Barbarian Migrations).  Or generally just to gloss over the problem.  That solution does not appear to be effective.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


If you are not fat, it might be worth your while to read My life as a public health crisis. Talk about eloquent.

An excerpt:
The fact is that most low-income people don’t have a lot of control over their diets to begin with, and the resources available to them tend to offer little in the way of assistance with the barriers that stand between them and health. I got a first-hand look at this when I got my first job as a task rabbit at a food pantry. I naively imagined smiling faces, neat boxes of food, and good feelings all around. My illusions were shattered when I was asked to sift through boxes of moldy cake and cookies, castoffs from a local grocery chain. I asked where the produce was, and I was met with a sigh. This was what was donated, so this was what we could provide.

Once I finished that, I had to hand out the go-bags. Go-bags were shopping bags full of food for people living in “unstable circumstances” – i.e., homeless. They consisted of anything that could be eaten on the go. They usually had a piece of fruit, but they were also full of slimy restaurant leftovers and cast-off pastries from the donation boxes. Bad food that fills you up and makes you happy, and a healthy snack when available. My family’s food pyramid, packaged to go.

I handed the first go-bag to a man my own age, a guy in a ratty coat who wouldn’t look me in the eye. He may have been ashamed of his situation, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t give him something better than leftover pizza and a cookie I wouldn’t feed my dog.
What angered me then – and angers me still – is that we didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort. We didn’t chase the grocery store out of his neighborhood, and we didn’t ask the grocery stores in the suburbs to fill the pantry with their uneaten pastries in lieu of real food. We weren’t responsible for the poverty that was eating the neighborhood like a cancer, leaving a generation of people exhausted and malnourished. We weren’t the ones who had broken the systems that punished us. All he’d done was fallen on hard times, and all I’d done was try to help him. Our shame wasn’t earned. It wasn’t fair.

That was when I decided to work my way up to a position where I could help people like him get something they would be proud to eat.

Food justice is complex work. We want to give people healthy food that is relevant to their tastes and needs, but we work in neighborhoods where it hasn’t been readily available in decades. What they want, what they need, and what they know how to prepare varies wildly. Programs based on stereotypes or one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed to fail.
Plenty more good stuff where that came from.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

More rookie historians

I've finished Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung and I am very impressed with the series.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Yuvall Noah Harari doesn't worry about killer robots

Harari in Getpocket;

I will summarize my view of the world in three simple statements. Things are better than ever before. Things are still quite bad. Things can get much worse. This adds up to a somewhat optimistic view because if you realize things are better than before, this means we can make them even better. We are not stuck in the same miserable position for all of history. There are things we can do to improve the situation. But there is nothing inevitable about it.

I’m not a believer that science and technology will inevitably create a better world. Science and technology guarantee only one thing. And this thing is power. Humankind is going to become more powerful. But what to do with this power? Here we have all kinds of options. If you look back in history, sometimes people use power very wisely, and very often they misuse their power. One of the most important forces in human history is human stupidity. We should never underestimate human stupidity. When you combine the limitless resource of human stupidity with amazing new powers that humankind will gain in the 21st century, this can be a recipe for disaster.

 I will summarize my view of the world in three simple statements. Things are better than ever before. Things are still quite bad. Things can get much worse. This adds up to a somewhat optimistic view because if you realize things are better than before, this means we can make them even better. We are not stuck in the same miserable position for all of history. There are things we can do to improve the situation. But there is nothing inevitable about it.

 I’m not a believer that science and technology will inevitably create a better world. Science and technology guarantee only one thing. And this thing is power. Humankind is going to become more powerful. But what to do with this power? Here we have all kinds of options. If you look back in history, sometimes people use power very wisely, and very often they misuse their power. One of the most important forces in human history is human stupidity. We should never underestimate human stupidity. When you combine the limitless resource of human stupidity with amazing new powers that humankind will gain in the 21st century, this can be a recipe for disaster.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I just finished this book,

I'm coming to it rather late -- it was published in 1951and has been famous ever since.  (Do younger people know it now?)

Since first publication, it's been famous for a variety of reasons.
  • as an astonishing first novel
  • as the work of an obscure author who retreated to the country and wrote little else
  • as an expose of modern (post-WWII) kids
  • as a dirty book unsuitable  for the teenagers it porported to depict, and thus a book time and again banned by school boards, mainly in North America.
  • as a source of slang and swear words
I heard a lot about The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager but never was required to read it, or forbidden to read it.  I ddin't read high prestige books of that sort; I read science fiction.

But now I've read it, and you know what?  It's very good.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Adam Gopnik on the current crisis of liberal democracy

American essayist Adam Gopnik was just on CBC radio's Sunday Edition arguing very cogently that what makes liberal democracy is not one big idea, like "the Nation" or "the Religion," but many, many habits and compromises that make possible for people to livetogether in a sane way.  Gopnik's new book in fact is called  

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism

You can hear him discussing this idea here: 

and I highly recommend it!

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Creating the Fulani script

Microsoft has a site called "Stories" where they subtly brag on all the wonderful things that can be done with computers.  Today someone directed me to a particular "story" about the invention of a script for the Fulani.

Fulani is an important language in West Africa -- it may have as many as 50 million speakers.  However, it has never had its own script, one really suited to its structure.  People have made do with the Arabic and Roman alphabets.  This has limited the literacy of most uo f those millions.

So who is responsible for this  useful innovation benefiting millions?  Just a  couple of kids!
Related image

An iconic Canadian image -- rural churches on a lakefront

I never saw this beautiful village -- Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia -- until the CBC ran a feature on small towns.  This combination of waterfront and an old, impressive church is pretty typical.  Bonfield, Ontario had one big church on the waterfront.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A new look at slavery

Today's Vox includes a substantial article by P.R. Lockhart on slavery   It's based on a recent book by Edward E. Baptist,  The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismIt has a provocative thesis, that slavery was the first modern big business, which was vital to the growth not just of the American South, but of the entire USA.  

Here's a excerpt from Lockhart :

Of the many myths told about American slavery, one of the biggest is that it was an archaic practice that only enriched a small number of men.

The argument has often been used to diminish the scale of slavery, reducing it to a crime committed by a few Southern planters, one that did not touch the rest of the United States. Slavery, the argument goes, was an inefficient system, and the labor of the enslaved was considered less productive than that of a free worker being paid a wage. The use of enslaved labor has been presented as premodern, a practice that had no ties to the capitalism that allowed America to become — and remain — a leading global economy.

But as with so many stories about slavery, this is untrue. Slavery, particularly the cotton slavery that existed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the Civil War, was a thoroughly modern business, one that was continuously changing to maximize profits.

To grow the cotton that would clothe the world and fuel global industrialization, thousands of young enslaved men and women — the children of stolen ancestors legally treated as property — were transported from Maryland and Virginia hundreds of miles south, and forcibly retrained to become America’s most efficient laborers. As they were pushed into the expanding territories of Mississippi and Louisiana, sold and bid on at auctions, and resettled onto forced labor camps, they were given a task: to plant and pick thousands of pounds of cotton.


The bodies of the enslaved served as America’s largest financial asset, and they were forced to maintain America’s most exported commodity. In 60 years, from 1801 to 1862, the amount of cotton picked daily by an enslaved person increased 400 percent. The profits from cotton propelled the US into a position as one of the leading economies in the world, and made the South its most prosperous region. The ownership of enslaved people increased wealth for Southern planters so much that by the dawn of the Civil War, the Mississippi River Valley had more millionaires per capita than any other region.

In recent years, a growing field of scholarship has outlined how America — through the country’s geographic growth after the American Revolution and enslavers’ desire for increased cotton production — created a complex system aimed at monetizing and maximizing the labor of the enslaved. In the cotton fields of the Deep South, this system rested on the continuous threat of violence and a meticulous use of record-keeping. The labor of each person was tracked daily, and those who did not meet their assigned picking goals were beaten. The best workers were beaten as well, the whip and other assaults coercing them into doing even more work in even less time. 
Read that again:  

The best workers were beaten as well,
As overseers and plantation owners managed a forced-labor system aimed at maximizing efficiency, they interacted with a network of bankers and accountants, and took out lines of credit and mortgages, all to manage America’s empire of cotton. An entire industry, America’s first big business, revolved around slavery.

“The slavery economy of the US South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” says Edward E. Baptist, a historian at Cornell University and the author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.

 This makes me want to teach Early Modern History again...

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Swimming wild in Britain

One of the best articles I've ever seen in the Guardian.  Extraordinary writers describe their love of swimming in wild locations.

A sample (from Rachel Edwards):
I love our river. It is ours not because we live on it (we don’t), or because we covet ownership of a beauty spot, but because this water flows through our family life. Our stretch of river lies between London and Oxford; it is technically the Thames and not quite the Isis; it is a gentle roar, a rushing calm, a city-country icon that feels deeply personal.

 When I first moved to our south Oxfordshire hamlet, 16 years ago, the river’s appeal was clear: every yard of it is picture perfect. Cross the weir, past the mill house and over the lock, past the weeping willow. Walk on with fields to your right and the river to your left, fringed by greenery that is mature yet exuberant (like many of the locals) and tiny beaches where anglers sit, nodding away the dogs who come sniffing at their bait.

I go in the water whenever the mood takes me: I have dunked myself to chill out a fraught afternoon and to commune with the dawn. I have been in with boat-weary friends, my husband, and – ill-advised, of course – alone (usually an angler is within shouting distance). To have a regular routine would kill the magic for me. The impulse, like the water, must be wild and free. When I do go in, it is always in summer – I marvel at those with hardy, moon-white bodies who smear themselves in goose fat and launch into wintry seas. I will never be one of their number. Even in a heatwave I mince in, arms bent and aloft, waiting for the cold water to stun my broiling core. Waist depth is optimum; I feel freed but embraced; I think about dipping my head under for a while. No earrings, no watch, offline. I’m ready.

I emerge each time alive but more so, skin teased and tingling, braids dripping, my mind washed of dark clutter; I am, if not quite reborn, then absolved by unseen river gods for as long as the water drips down my calves. Our river restores, rewarding even the most timid dip with cool inspiration. And so, in I go.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

What I thought everybody knew -- Man has baby

Today on CBC Radio's comedy show "The Debaters" was in Calgary, and much of the debate was on the desirability of building a new arena.  Big issue in that city.

One question thrown out to one of the debaters was to finish a famous quote by Montreal mayor Jean
Drapeau in his promotion of the 1972 Olympics:
"The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby."
Of course the Montreal Olympics lost millions.  And just about everyone quoted Drapeau if they had any motivation to oppose a sports boondogle.

I was surprised, then, that the Calgary crowd didn't react at all.

Of course, these were Albertans being indifferent to Quebec; and I think the Debaters appeals to a younger crowd; and by no means do I count as young.

But it is another lesson in the dangers of assuming you know that "everybody" knows what you know, even recent historical events.