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.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Heroic female historians in old Korea

I'm just now watching an entertaining Korean mini-series on Netflix, Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung.  It is not exactly easy to follow, but not hopelessly obscure, either.

Goo Hae-Ryung is a young noblewoman sometime in the early modern period (at a guess). She loves literature, Korean, Chinese and European.  She may also be Maehwa, the author of the latest fad in Korean romance novels. Or maybe it's the young prince second in line to the throne who is Maewha.
The Korean state at this time works like the Chinese system.  Applicants for government jobs study classic literature and write exams based on that material.  The highly-educated office holders look down on the material written in Korean alphabets, on Korean novels, and on the people who read them.  Goo Hae-Ryung is a promoter of popular literature.  Lots of teenage girls are crazy for romances and when they hear that Maehwa is going to sign copies of his/her most recent book they practically riot.
The royal councillors decide to repress this "movement" by recruiting female historians OR forbidding the recruiting of female historians.  The King, who has been the target of bureaucratic criticism, takes the opportunity to open history offices to young women...Of course the male historians resist...

I am liking this series for its cinematography and the humorous depiction of character.  The music's good, too, which you might expect at a time when South Korea is strutting on the world music stage.

If you by chance run into me in person, I'll tell you both my Korean bureacrats' story and my Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) story.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

A Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine

Last month I was talking about fanfic, Byzantium, Byzantine literature and such. I was inspired by an the Tor.com site article related to Arkady Martine's A Memory Called Empire, where the author talked in a very interesting way about the relationship between fan fiction and Byzantine literature.

Well, I got the book from my local library and I am reading it now.  Is it good?

Yes. Yes, indeed.

More about Martine here.

Saturday, July 06, 2019

Obituary for Gary Duncan of the Quicksilver Messenger Service

QMS was my favorite American band in the late 60s.  This Washington Post obit says a lot about the band :

Gary Duncan, a guitarist and singer for Quicksilver Messenger Service, an electrifying mainstay of the San Francisco psychedelic scene that rivaled Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead in the late 1960s, died June 29 at a hospital in Woodland, Calif. He was 72.

His wife, Dara Love Duncan, said he had fallen 10 days earlier and suffered a seizure and cardiac arrest before being taken off life support.

Formed in California in 1965, Quicksilver Messenger Service helped create the “San Francisco sound,” fusing rock, blues, folk and jazz in a luminous blend that made them a staple of venues like the Fillmore, Avalon Ballroom and California Hall, where the air was filled with the smells of incense, marijuana and patchouli.

“You listen to these records and they take you back to a simpler time,” Rusty Goldman, a friend of Mr. Duncan’s and rock archivist known as Professor Poster, said in a phone interview. “Their music was pure. Everyone always left their shows feeling high on the music as well as whatever else they ingested.”

Mr. Duncan was not yet 20 when he joined Quicksilver Messenger Service and began making loose, heavily improvised music with drummer Greg Elmore, bassist David Freiberg and fellow guitarist John Cipollina, with whom he developed a complex, vibrato- and reverb-heavy interplay

For a time, the band also featured guitarist Jim Murray and songwriter Chet Powers (known by his stage name Dino Valenti), a Greenwich Village folk singer who had written the peace anthem “Get Together” before being busted on drug charges that kept him from performing with Quicksilver Messenger Service in its early years.

Known for its brilliant, drug-infused live performances, the band initially resisted following peers like Jefferson Airplane into the recording studio. “We had no ambition toward making records,” Mr. Duncan once said, according to the website Best Classic Bands. “We just wanted to have fun, play music and make enough money to be able to afford to smoke pot.”

But after 1967 performances at the Human Be-In and the Monterey Pop Festival, where they took the stage alongside acts including Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service landed a contract with Capitol Records, resulting in their self-titled debut the next year.
Generally considered their finest studio effort, the record opened with a cover of Hamilton Camp’s “Pride of Man” — “Oh God, pride of man, broken in the dust again!” — and included “Gold and Silver,” a rock reworking of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” co-written by Mr. Duncan.

Their follow-up, “Happy Trails” (1969), was described by Rolling Stone as “the definitive live recording of the late-Sixties ballroom experience,” and ranked No. 189 on the magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums. Featuring extended jams built around the Bo Diddley songs “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona,” as well as Duncan compositions including “Cavalry,” it showed “that psychedelia was about more than just tripping out,” Rolling Stone wrote.

Offstage, band members lived at “a commune in Marin County where all manner of musicians, old ladies with babies, dope dealers and human driftwood coalesced into a barely functioning whole,” according to “A Perfect Haze,” a history of the Monterey Pop Festival by Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik.

“At rehearsals we’d sit there and play for seven, eight hours straight, 10 hours,” Mr. Duncan told ethnomusicologist Craig Morrison in 2001. “We’d play ’til we’d just fall over and the hands were bleeding. I’d go in the rehearsal place and take a bunch of amphetamine and some LSD and just play for like a day and a half. And end up in the weirdest . . . places, not knowing . . . if it was actually any good or not.”

After the release of “Happy Trails,” Mr. Duncan left the group for about a year — in part because of drug use, Freiberg said — and then returned to record “Just for Love” (1970). The album included Quicksilver Messenger Service’s only single to reach the Top 50, “Fresh Air,” as well as a fresh-from-prison Valenti, who took over lead vocals after Mr. Duncan and his bandmates had taken turns at the mic.

Mr. Duncan played on subsequent albums before the group disbanded after the release of “Solid Silver” (1975). He revived the Quicksilver name in the late 1980s and in recent years toured with Freiberg, who also performed with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, groups whose popularity had long ago eclipsed that of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

“Nobody really wanted to be a celebrity,” Mr. Duncan once told the website Classic Bands . “That’s kind of like the way all of us are. Virgo is the sign of the hermit in the Tarot cards. We were all hermits and still are.”
By most accounts, Mr. Duncan was born Gary Grubb in San Diego on Sept. 4, 1946, and raised in Ceres, Calif.
He gave few details on his upbringing but said he was a Native American orphan who “grew up with rednecks,” built and fixed cars, worked at canneries, served in the military and spent a year in prison for marijuana possession before launching his music career in earnest. “I didn’t think I would live past 25,” he told Classic Bands.

Under the stage name Gary Cole, Mr. Duncan sang with the California garage-rock band the Brogues — their single “I Ain’t No Miracle Worker” was included on “Nuggets,” an influential compilation of early psychedelic rock — before linking up with Quicksilver Messenger Service
They chose the name because four of the musicians shared the Virgo astrological sign, which is said to be “ruled,” in astrological terms, by the planet Mercury. Mr. Duncan recalled band members saying, “Well, let’s see — mercury’s the same as quicksilver, right? Mercury’s the messenger god? Quicksilver Messenger Service.”

In addition to working as a musician, Mr. Duncan had stints as a machinist, welder, diver, longshoreman and sailor, once taking a schooner from Malta across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Panama Canal, up to San Francisco and then across the Pacific, according to a 2007 report in Britain’s Observer newspaper.

He was also a self-avowed smuggler (of what, he did not say) and ran with the Hells Angels motorcycle group, declaring, “They can be dangerous and I’ve got a detached retina to prove it, but if they take you in, and they did, they’ll stay with you until the end.”

His marriage to Shelley L. Duncan — who wrote a memoir of their relationship, “My Husband the Rock Star” — ended in divorce, and in 1978 he married Dara Love. In addition to his wife, of Richmond, Calif., survivors include two children from his earlier marriage, Heather Duncan of Tracy, Calif., and Jesse Duncan of Merced, Calif.; three sons with Love Duncan, Thomas Duncan and Miles Duncan, both of Richmond, and Michael Duncan of San Francisco; and several grandchildren.

Mr. Duncan said he began playing the guitar because it was the instrument of rebels and tough guys. “If you’re going to play an electric guitar, you had to know how to kick people’s [butt], because they would be waiting to kick your [butt] when you came off the stage because they knew their girlfriends thought you was cute,” he told Morrison.

“Every guitar player I ever met was [nasty], because you had to be,” he added. “I had a guy walk up to me one time and punch me straight in the face when I was about 14 years old. I hit him in the back of the head with a Telecaster; he’s walking with a limp, now. I done him in. You had to fight to play.”

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Neil MacDonald in the Globe and Mail:

I've also seen Senator Elizabeth Warren up close.

It was in a union hall in Kentucky in 2014. She was stumping for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who was trying to unseat Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but Grimes might as well not have been in the room once Warren — the tiny, intense former Harvard professor — took the stage.
Elizabeth Warren fully intends to change the system, and says so.

When she said how good it felt to be with working people in a workers' hall, you knew it wasn't a platitude. When she talked about taking on the venality of corporate America, you knew she meant it. As she talked, plainly and without the usual dumbed-down patronizing, the small talk in the crowd died. People stared. When she finished, they roared.

The only speaker I have ever seen hold a crowd like that was Lucien Bouchard, speaking to audiences of Quebecers in 1990 about the betrayal of the Meech Lake Accord.
Both politicians burned with intelligence, and radiated principle. Neither gave a toss for political triangulation. Both left their listeners convinced they meant what they said and would do it, and that to them, only the people mattered.
If you are not Canadian, the reference to Lucien Bouchard will pass you by.  But if you are and  remember 1990...well, look up Bouchard on the net.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

50 Days to the Moon

The Fast Company site is in the middle of a series on the first moon landing.  It contains all sorts of topics related to the Apollo 11 mission, technical, political, and cultural.  Here's an example: 
Once Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Eagle on the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts and their spaceship were actually lost.

  Oh, Mission Control never lost radio contact with them. But NASA was never able to figure out where, exactly, on the Moon they had set down, while they were on the Moon. And NASA sure did try.

 The landing area on the Moon that had been picked out for Apollo 11 was about the length of Manhattan and twice as wide. In photo surveys, it looked plain, flat, and bland—not interesting for geologists but a safe place to land a spaceship, the first time human beings ever tried that on a place off of Earth.
  But up close, the Sea of Tranquility was anything but tranquil. As Armstrong and Aldrin flew down toward the Moon in their lunar module, Armstrong was looking out the window and the spot the autopilot was flying them toward was, as Armstrong described it, a crater the size of a football field, littered with boulders, some as large as cars.
Not a comfortable place to try to land a gangly four-legged spaceship.

So Armstrong took manual control of where the lunar module was flying to—the spaceship computer still did all the actual flying, but Armstrong was instructing it where to go and at what speed.

In the end, he and Aldrin set down several miles from the original landing spot—on safe, level Moon ground, but not where they had planned to land. Armstrong, in particular, had studied photographs of the Sea of Tranquility in preparation for flying to it and knew the landmarks and the landscape of much of the area.

Andrew Chaikin, in his account of the Moon landings, A Man On the Moon, describes Armstrong’s reaction to landing in unfamiliar Moon terrain: “As he looked out (at Tranquility Base), Armstrong wondered where he and Aldrin had landed . . . . (He) searched the horizon for some feature he might be able to identify, but found none.”