Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pessimistic? Optomistic?

If you want to feed your nightmares about where the United States of America is going, you can do no better than to read two recent posts by Driftglass, this one and this one. I keep coming back to Driftglass because he sees American reality with a terrifying clearness; he recently summed up the lessons of the last eight years in a phrase so pungent -- not crude but horrifying in its accuracy -- that I have yet to quote it in print. The posts linked to above will be quite enough for most readers.

Then on the hopeful side there is a recent diary posted to the DailyKos site by Billmon, who at the beginning of this seemingly endless American crisis, became famous on the Internet (sorry about that, billmon) for his analysis and alarm expressed in admirable prose. His blog has been closed for a while, but recently he has been posting on other people's blogs, perhaps because he feels that things aren't completely hopeless now. Here's what he had to say today.

I have been pretty pessimistic myself, and there's still lots to be pessimistic about. But the one sign that makes me think that you can't count the Americans out yet, no matter how much they ask for it, is just this: Barack Obama. Not the man, but the name.

Who could think that seven years after a man named Osama bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center that someone with a name like Barack Obama could make any impact on the American consciousness at all?

Not to mention that he's black.

I don't know what I think of Obama, but I think the fact that he has been enthusiastically nominated by a major American political party says something quite amazing about the United States and its continuing flexibility.

Image: From Driftglass; read the post.

And you think your government is stupid and unresponsive

Read it and weep.

(Canadians: read this and weep.)

No wonder political dialogue seems so stupid

You don't actually get to hear it!

Last night I turned on the TV to watch the Democratic National Convention. On CPAC it was straight coverage of the speeches, all of them, and some were very interesting and informed me about what Democrats think is important this year. But then the satellite signal stopped working and I switched over to CBCs News World where it was nothing but media talking head followed by academic talking head followed by professional commentator talking head until they got to Hillary Clinton, when they actually showed her speech. None of the information that I got from watching on CPAC got through this screen of really obvious commentary.

If you didn't know anything about what's happened in the campaign so far, all those talking heads would have given you a little bit of background. But that could have been done in five minutes, and if you really care about American politics you'd want to see the speeches.

I am really ashamed of the coverage by the CBC. They are supposed to be a lot less brain-dead in the American media, and a lot less superficial.

Image: Joseph Faber's exhibition of his "Wonderful Talking Machine" at the Musical Fund Hall in Philadelphia, 1845. More here.

Monday, August 25, 2008

NGC 1232 -- grand spiral galaxy

From Astronomy Picture of the Day where you can read all about it.

Stop by this post and see evidence for dark matter
while you are at it.

Don't forget that by clicking on these APoD pictures, you (usually) get access to a bigger and more colorful version than appears here. The picture above is huge in its original form. With a big enough screen, or your projector, you could cover a wall.

The Constant Gardener, by John le Carré

On the weekend I finished John le Carré's 2001 book, The Constant Gardener. I realized after I was done that Carré has been writing superior novels for over 45 years. How exactly his genius manifests itself in this particular novel is through the evocation of character Ghostly people slowly solidify to become very, very real. It's a sad book about great crimes inflicted on poor people by the rich, greedy and powerful -- in this case, the pharmaceutical industry. But as Carré says in the afterword, the book is like a picture postcard compared to the reality on the ground. You don't want to believe him, but he compels your belief with his skill and his track record.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The problems of really serious historical reenactment

Darrell Markewitz was involved in the design of the Viking living history site at L'Anse aux Meadows, and now he hears news that they are trying some ambitious projects there. I am sure he is intrigued, but the most interesting thing about this blog post is his fear that the site is tackling more than it can handle.

Darrell will be on my property on Labor Day weekend taking part in an SCA re-creation event. Last I heard there will be on-site glass bead making. If you come, come dressed in medieval fashion, as best you can do.

Image: see the post.

Another good bookshelf to explore

A number of times in the last two years or so I have linked to Phil Paine's blog over at his multipurpose website. One purpose is to list recent reads and review the best.

Two books particularly caught my attention. The first is #16396 -- yeah, Phil reads a lot -- (Michael H. Shuman) The Small-Mart Revolution ― How Local Businesses are Beating the Global Competition. Here are the comments that caught my attention:

I would like to see everyone involved with urban reform and with democratic renewal activism to read this book. There is a powerful undercurrent of change going on in both the United States and Canada, definitely something moving up from the grass roots and ignored by both the media and the elite political drones. It's something far more creative and significant than a mere flaky fashion for "anti-globalism" demonstrations, with which the reader might at first confuse it. It's the fact that people — ordinary people — are starting to question the orthodoxies they have been taught about how things "have to be", and realizing that their self-interest, as well as their future, depends on re-envigorating local economic and political power...

At the heart of his study are the premises that every consumer choice that prefers local sourcing over distant sourcing increases the "multiplier effect" of transactions in an economy, and that import substitution is the engine economic growth. He exposes the disastrous consequences of bribing and luring distant corporate powers into a locality rather than creating conditions for organic local economic creativity...

He also grasps that those same governments will quickly "agree" with rational critics and make a big, but entirely phony, show of following the rational path, while changing nothing. This shows that he has some real-life experience of trying to reform things. But he is at his best when he describes situations where dedicated people have actually made advances in democracy and prosperity, despite all the obstacles. The good news is that those advances are more numerous and vigorous than one would guess. The media have no interest in telling you about them. To describe these successful initiatives, Shuman coins the acronym LOIS ("local ownership and import substitution").

A much briefer comment on another book struck close to home:

16397. (Robert McCloskey) Homer Price.

This was one of the "children's classics" that I had glanced at as a child, but never actually read. A pity. McCloskey was a gentle humorist with a charming style and great human empathy, who chose to write for children rather than, say, subscribers to the New Yorker. He was also a talented artist, in a style reminiscent of Ernie Pyle. The world he writes about now seems so far away that a contemporary child might have some problems interpret it. It would seem exotic, rather than comfortingly familiar. But if you are an adult with any feeling for American social history, the child-viewpoint stories about pet skunks, donut machines, and giant balls of string will be fascinating.

I read that book as a kid and more or less recognized the environment, even though it was about pre-World War II times and I was born after the war. After all, Homer Price lived near me!

Exciting views on scholarship

As I look out over the upcoming the full term, I wonder how I will ever have time to contribute to this blog. Michael Drout reassures me. Last year he had a tremendously busy year and blog postings fell off. But now he's back and better than ever -- at least until he actually starts teaching again.

In the last week he wrote two posts that really piqued my interest and may be of interest to others as well. The first was a long discussion about how Drout, an Anglo-Saxonist and world-famous authority on the works of Tolkien, considers one of his most important scholarly influences to be the late Stephen Jay Gould. Gould, some of you may not know, was "a specialist on Cerion, a genus of land snails from Bermuda and the Bahamas," (I didn't know that) , but

also proposed and argued for some significant revisions of the Darwinian "new synthesis" (which had been developed when Mendelian models of heredity were coupled with the principle of Natural Selection; recent work that is called "Evo-Devo" -- Evolution and Development -- has integrated work in developmental biology into the new synthesis. This is where bio is right now). With Niles Eldredge Gould proposed "Punctuated Equilibrium," the idea that morphologies are static for long periods of time and then change rather rapidly rather than the continuous rate of very slow change that Gould attributed to Darwin (opponents of Gould noted that Darwin had at least made a few motions towards punctuated equilibrium and that Gould and Eldredge weren't as revolutionary as they claimed to be; the truth is somewhere in the middle -- Gould and Eldredge were excellent self-promoters, and not all Darwinians were complete gradualists, but Punctuated Equilibrium did more to change the thinking of theoretical biologists than opponents often admit).
Got to love a literary scholar who looks to evolutionary theory for inspiration. And for that matter, to Gould specifically for insights on method and as an exemplar of scholarly outreach:

I would liken this part of Gould's career to those medievalists, like Scott Nokes and Tom Shippey and Michelle Brown, who make a real effort, in different venues and in different ways, to explain medieval studies, and their importance, to lay people. This work not only helps to recruit new students and spread the word of important intellectual discoveries, but it makes the general public, parents, legislators and donors more willing to support medieval studies. I also think--and here I am not a majority opinion, I think--that if you can't explain the technical materials in terms that a layman can understand (or you choose not to) you are abdicating an important responsibility of disseminating your work as well as doing it.

There is plenty more meat in this post, such as (can't help quoting):

Finally, and here I shill for the liberal arts education yet again, the kind of polymath study that Gould did enables breakthroughs in all areas. The more you know about what is going on in other fields, the more you can apply to the difficult problems in your own field. And the more you stick with your technical projects, the more the other things will fall into place.
Read it all here.

Today Drout posted another prize post. Discussing intellectual method with a promising student, he suggested this guideline is one way of getting into a subject:

He/she asked me for some trick about how to generate ideas for papers and arguments. I came up with a few and thought I would share one here: push the metaphor until it breaks, then look at the broken pieces and figure out why it broke.

So, for example, if you hear Foucault's metaphor of the "prisonhouse of language," push the metaphor: who is the warden? what shape would that prisonhouse be? Do people get work release? Is there parole? Do people in it have just one cell mate? Communal showers? Exercise yard? Etc., etc.

If you can build the metaphor bigger and bigger, and figure out how all those pieces might fit in, then that metaphor might be robust. In Daniel Dennett's terms, it's a good "intuition pump." But if the metaphor collapses when pushed, then you know that perhaps it wasn't a good one, that it wasn't carrying the things you wanted it to carry.

This gives me a vision of Drout as a teacher who would not allow you the slightest refuge in clichéd baloney, but from whom you could learn a tremendous amount. And I'm not talking about facts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Preliminary course outlines online

You can find links to them via my academic home page.

It's not to the death...

...but sometimes it feels like it anyway.

Pictures of Olympic fencing
from The Big Picture.

Views of the Georgian-Ossetian crisis

An article by a Washington Post correspondent with extensive background in Georgia.

Amateur photos showing the results of the fighting from English Russia.

The Pennsic War

During my recent vacation I attended, as I usually do, the SCA's Pennsic War. The Society for Creative Anachronism or SCA is a very large medieval re-creation group -- not a reenactment group because it does not reenact specific events of the Middle Ages, but has created its own Middle Ages for fun. The Pennsic War to give an example is fought between two SCA kingdoms, the Middle Kingdom and the East Kingdom, and their allies, none of which you will find on a map of Europe in any era. Wrapped around this war, which is by far the largest SCA event on the calendar, are a large number of organized and spontaneous activities, martial, educational, and artistic -- not to mention the parties and the various efforts to survive in what is essentially a tent city of 10,000 people or more.

I could go on for a long time trying to convey the Pennsic experience, but I will restrict my remarks to a few. First, reenactment. If neither Pennsic nor the SCA are primarily meant as reenactments, a fact that earns them scorn from many people who are aiming at reenactment, there are moments of reenactment nonetheless. At this Pennsic war I was able to witness attempts to re-create or reenact, with differing levels of accuracy, to deeds of arms of the 14th century which I have written about in scholarly venues, the Combat of the 30 against 30 that took place in Brittany in 1351, and the deeds of arms at Vannes, also in Brittany, of 1381. (The image above shows a few of the French 30 preparing for the combat.) Though one could easily stand back and list deficiencies in these reenactments, I found them enjoyable and even educational. (Here's my kvetch: Armor fans will note in the image above that the participants in this annual event tend to favor late- rather than mid-14th century armor. And many of them seem to be armored like princes instead of mercenary scum.)

More interesting even than the recreations and reenactments of the Middle Ages is the is a freewheeling modern-medievalist (?) culture of Pennsic. Two small examples will give an impression, I hope.

The first is the Pennsic rune stone. Long ago (1981), some SCA members from the American Midwest tried to express what the martial competitions at Pennsic, which are vigorous and sometimes painful but seldom really dangerous, meant to them. They did it in mock- Viking style by erecting stone monument. It is pictured above. The inscription, which I offer without comment, says:

In memory of Pennsic X.
In war we test our honor, courage and strength.
Let no man strike in anger.
Let no man lie in pain.

The work was done by Lars the Fierce, now a professional potter, who still attends Pennsic.

My second example is newer than the rune stone: it is a Turkish-style coffeehouse called Your Inner Vagabond, which is dedicated to the pleasures that can be achieved with such legal stimulants as coffee, sugar, chocolate, and all the spices of the silk road. Not to mention occasional music and dance. The IV, as the worst addicts call it, has been such a success that it now has a permanent location in Pittsburgh, about an hour from Pennsic site. The on-site location is now considerably bigger than shown in the picture above, which is two years old.

Usually my time at Pennsic is entirely devoted to nonliterate pursuits. I tend to avoid the printed page, and I entirely avoid the glowing screen. But this year I did something I've never done at Pennsic before: I wrote a lecture (on the Second Crusade). And I did it while sitting in the Inner Vagabond and sampling its wares. It was pure pleasure.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Iraq, Afghanistan, Islamic extremism, your time is up!

No longer are you the key battlegrounds for the future, or the greatest threat to the free people of the world.

Indeed, just like all those people in Washington, I can hardly remember when or why you were important. The big bad bear is back!

Another example of brilliant political insight.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hamlet (1996)

I just saw Kenneth Branagh's film Hamlet once again, and it holds up.

I thought Derek Jacobi's Claudius was brilliant and made the usurper a truly central character.

And having seen Branagh first as Hamlet and then (in the DVD intro) as himself, I was amazed by the magic power he has to turn his ordinary English self into such eye-rivetting characters.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Three interesting posts from my hiatus

I only skimmed over my blog feeds after returning from my vacation, but I am glad I did so, and didn't just delete wholesale. There was some good reading, a bit of which I am going to share with you.

To start with a post that is mainly of interest to academics, here's Michael Drout ruminating on the administrative demands made on professors. But of course it's not just profs who suffer through meetings:

When I was Chair of Ed Pol I used to joke that we needed "Meeting Dosimeters" similar to those used for people who work with radioactive materials. When your dosimeter has gone above the safety level, you simply can't do any more work with radioactivity that month. It should be the same thing with meetings and other Chair stuff: decide how much you are going to do per week, and stick to that. To quote my friend Bryon Grigsby, who is now a Provost: "Nobody is going to die based on what happens in the English department."
There might be a big market for those "meeting dosimeters."

On a more historical note, here's another brilliant and thoughful post by Jonathan Jarret on medieval agricultural economics and various ways we can understand the relations between practice and records. It's vegetable barter time!

Finally, one news item I was sorry to miss, from the Telegraph: Knights Templar heirs in legal battle with the Pope.

Here's the gist:

The Association of the Sovereign Order of the Temple of Christ, whose members claim to be descended from the legendary crusaders, have filed a lawsuit against Benedict XVI calling for him to recognise the seizure of assets worth 100 billion euros (£79 billion).

They claim that when the order was dissolved by his predecessor Pope Clement V in 1307, more than 9,000 properties as well as countless pastures, mills and other commercial ventures belonging to the knights were appropriated by the church.

But their motive is not to reclaim damages only to restore the "good name" of the Knights Templar.

"We are not trying to cause the economic collapse of the Roman Catholic Church, but to illustrate to the court the magnitude of the plot against our Order," said a statement issued by the self-proclaimed modern day knights.

The fate and alleged guilt of the Templars is a legitimate subject. One does wonder, however, how this Association can claim "descent" from the 14th century members of the historic Order. Simple answer: The same way everyone else does, more or less by assertion.

For more, see Wikipedia, which I would guess has tons of material on the dubious descendents of the Templars.

Images: Templars being burned for heresy and apostasy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three more beauties from APoD

Once in front of a computer, one of the first things I did was go to the Astronomy Picture of the Day site and look at what I missed. Much better for the mental health and joy quotient than reading the international news. Here are three of the best:

The planet Jupiter over the ancient city of Ephesus

High Cliffs Surrounding Echus Chasma on Mars

IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula

Return to the Near North

Though I spent most of the last few weeks outdoors or in tents, returning to my rural home is still a big transition. To celebrate, I'm including an Astronomy Picture of the Day showing the Milky Way over Ontario. It's usually not so dark in my neighborhood, and the stars are not usually this spectacular, but this is consistent with our sky experience.