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“All things are metaphors”*…

 

For much of the 17th century, Europeans believed that California was an island.  Indeed, readers who have suffered through your correspondent’s explanation of scenario planning know that a 17th century map in which California is depicted as an island, very like the one above, figures into the talk as an example of the way that incorrect maps– cartographical or mental maps– are hard to change and often lead us astray.

But as this appreciation of Stanford’s collection of California maps points out, there may be a deeper truth to the depiction:

The fact that a number of explorers knew that California was not an island was not enough to nip the idea in the bud. Yet it would be a shame to think of the idea as simply an error, a cartographical crease which needed ironing out. Even though maps may be presented as accurate, they cannot escape their metaphorical nature. They reflect much more than physical geography. That California was mapped as an island for so long speaks to its separateness. The writer Rebecca Solnit, a student of the Stanford maps, has argued that, “An island is anything surrounded by difference.” The state contains around 2,000 plant species found nowhere else. Its borders comprise dizzying mountains, harsh deserts and immense ocean. It has been home to the Gold Rush, the psychedelic era, the silicone boom. In several ways then, California is an island…

More (and more marvelous maps) at “Maps Showing California as an Island.”

* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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As we remember that “the map is not the territory,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1570 that Gilles Coppens de Diest at Antwerp published Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum— a collection of 53 maps that is generally agreed to have been the first modern atlas.

Interestingly (for reasons explained in the article linked above), Ortelius’ maps, which pre-date the charts in the Stanford collection, portray California more accurately.

Title page from a 1606 edition

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Written by LW

May 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Tradition wears a snowy beard, romance is always young”*…

 

Thomas Gowing felt the mighty yet fragile English Beard to be threatened with extinction by an invasive foreign species, the Razor. So he set out to defend the furry face mammal in every conceivable way. The resulting lecture was received so enthusiastically by a bushy-faced audience in Ipswich that it was soon turned into The Philosophy of Beards (1854) — the first book entirely devoted to this subject.

It is Gowing’s ardent belief that the bearded are better looking, better morally and better historically than the shaven. To call him a huge fan of the suburbs of the chin would be an understatement. “It is impossible” he writes “to view a series of bearded portraits . . . without feeling that they possess dignity, gravity, freedom, vigour, and completeness.” By contrast, the clean-cut look always leaves him with “a sense of artificial conventional bareness”. Gowing’s apology for the beard makes frequent appeals to nature, some of them amusingly far-fetched: “Nature leaves nothing but what is beautiful uncovered, and the masculine chin is seldom sightly, because it was designed to be covered, while the chins of women are generally beautiful.” Sometimes his argument transforms from a shield for the beard into a swipe at the chin: “There is scarcely indeed a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man (compared by the Turks to a ‘plucked pigeon’)”.

Gowing was writing at a time when physiognomy — the art of reading a person’s character in their facial features — was still popular in Europe and America. So it is no surprise to learn that “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”…

More tonsorial teaching at: “The Philosophy of Beards (1854).”

Read it in full at the Internet Archive; or buy a hard copy of The Philosophy The British Library republished it in 2014, for the first time since 1854.

* John Greenleaf Whittier

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As we hail the hirsute, we might recall that it was on this date in 2005 that Kingda Ka opened at the Six Flags Great Adventure Park in Jackson, New Jersey.  The world’s tallest roller coaster (and the world’s second fastest roller coaster), it offers riders an experience that lasts 28 seconds… during which the roller coaster cars are “launched” to a speed of 128 mph (in 3.5 seconds).  At the end of the launch track, the train climbs the main tower (or top hat) and rolls 90 degrees to the right before reaching a height of 456 feet.  The train then descends 418 feet (straight down through a 270-degree right-hand spiral.  The train climbs a second hill of 129 feet, producing a brief period of weightlessness, before descending, turning toward the station, and being smoothly brought to a stop by the magnetic brakes.

Cool.

Kingda Ka’s “top hat”

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Written by LW

May 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization”*…

 

The phrase confuses me. I was born in California. My mom was born in New York. “Go back where you came from.” Um, okay. I mean, I was headed home anyways. My house is just a few blocks away.

I grew up in a mostly non-Asian city, so I used to hear the phrase sometimes. Kids like to pick on the one who looks a little different. But these days, when I hear an adult say it to another adult, it catches me off guard. It doesn’t make sense.

You traverse an American’s family tree, and eventually you find an immigrant. And most of the time, you don’t have to go back that far.

So … what if everyone went back where they came from?

Find at at Nathan Yau‘s “If We All Left to ‘Go Back Where We Came From’.”

* Gandhi (who also observed, “No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”)

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As we stir the melting pot, we might recall that today is the Feast Day of  Lucifer– more properly, of St. Lucifer of Caligari.  At least, it’s his feast day in Sardinia, where he’s venerated.  Lucifer, who was a 4th century bishop fierce in his opposition to Arianism, is considered by some elsewhere to have been a stalwart (if minor) defender of the orthodoxy; but by more to have been an obnoxious fanatic.

“Lucifer” was in use at the time as a translation of the the Hebrew word, transliterated Hêlêl or Heylel (pron. as HAY-lale), which means “shining one, light-bearer.”  It had been rendered in Greek as ἑωσφόρος (heōsphoros), a name, literally “bringer of dawn,” for the morning star.  The name “Lucifer” was introduced in St. Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, roughly contemporaneously with St. Lucifer.  But the positive spin of Lucifer of Caligari’s name was, even in it’s day, in tension with the received idea of “Lucifer”; the conflation of “Lucifer” with an altogether evil “Satan” had begun centuries earlier.

Indeed, Satan had undergone a pretty profound transition: “Satan” is from a Hebrew word, “Saithan,” meaning adversary or enemy; in original Jewish usage (see the book of Job); but Satan is the adversary, not of God, but of mankind; i.e., the angel charged by God with the task of proving mankind an unworthy creation.  Thus Satan was originally not in opposition to God, but doing His will.

Later– during the Second Temple Period, when Jews were living in the Achaemenid Empire, and Judaism was heavily influenced by Zoroastrianism— the concept of an evil power ruling an underground domain of punishment for the wicked became fixed in doctrine (mirroring Angra Mainyu, the Zoroastrian god of evil, darkness, and ignorance).  Over time, elements of the Graeco-Roman god Pluto/Vulcan/Hephaestus, the Underworld, & various aspects of Nordic/Teutonic mythology also made their way into the Jewish, then Christian, understandings of Satan and his realm.

St. Lucifer of Calgari

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Satan doing God’s work: The Examination of Job (c. 1821) by William Blake

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Written by LW

May 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I suffer from everyday life”*…

 

Philosopher, essayist, and poet Fred Moten

“I think mayonnaise has a complex kind of relation to the sublime,” [Moten] said. “And I think emulsion does generally. It’s something about that intermediary—I don’t know—place, between being solid and being a liquid, that has a weird relation to the sublime, in the sense that the sublimity of it is in the indefinable nature of it.”

“It’s liminal also,” I offered.

“It’s liminal, and it connects to the body in a certain way.”

“You have to shake it up,” I said. “You have to put the energy into it to get it into that state.”

“Anyway,” Moten said, “mostly I just don’t fucking like it.”…

The New Yorker‘s David Wallace on “Fred Moten’s radical critique of the present.”

* Italo Calvino

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As we contemplate the quotidian, we might recall that it was on this date in 1924 that the Marx Brother’s took Broadway by storm.  Already vaudeville stars, they’d wrangled a spot on the Great White Way, a last-minute opening for which they threw together a review based nominally on an unsuccessful musical comedy by Will and Tom Johnstone, originally written for British actress Kitty Gordon as Love For Sale.  The Marx Brothers substituted in some of their most trustworthy material and called it I’ll Say She Is.

In one of show business’ great strokes of luck, the opening night of a major dramatic play, slated for this same date, was canceled, leading all of New York’s leading critics instead to the premiere of the relatively-unknown Marx Brothers’ show.  Their extraordinary banter and slapstick astounded the critics, and put the Brothers on the road to Broadway, then Hollywood fame.

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Written by LW

May 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption”*…

 

John Adams didn’t literally call the Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser) “fake news,” but he was not pleased by the way he was often depicted in it

In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note.

Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.

The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.

While Chinese monks were block printing the Diamond Sutra as early as 868 A.D. and German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of movable metal type in the mid-1400s, it took until the Enlightenment for the free press as we know it today to be born.

Condorcet’s 1795 text expanded upon the belief that a press free from censorship would circulate an open debate of ideas, with rationality and truth winning out. Adams’ marginal response reminds us that when something like truth is up for debate, the door is open for bad-faith actors (the partisan press in his view) to promulgate falsehoods—something that a reader today might call “fake news.”…

Harrowing history at: “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’.”

* “Totalitarian propaganda perfects the techniques of mass propaganda, but it neither invents them nor originates their themes. These were prepared for them by fifty years of imperialism and disintegration of the nation-state, when the mob entered the scene of European politics. Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

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As we ferret out the facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1593 that Christopher Marlowe, the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day (and a powerful influence on Shakespeare), was indicted by the Privy Council for heresy on the basis of testimony (probably elicited by torture) from Marlowe’s roommate, fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd.  Marlowe (who was in fact an atheist and seems likely to have supplemented his income as a spy) was subsequently arrested, but was able to use his connections to arrange bail.  While out he became involved in a fight– ostensibly over a tavern bill, but believed by many to have been a set-up– and was stabbed to death.

The 1585 portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1953, believed to be of the 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe.  The inscribed motto is “QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT,” “that which nourishes me destroys me.”  Indeed.

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Written by LW

May 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”*…

 

From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.

Professionally, Stryker was known for two things: preserving thousands of photographs from being destroyed for political reasons, and for “killing” lots of photos himself. Negatives he liked were selected to be printed. Those he didn’t—ones that didn’t fit the narrative and perspective of the FSA at the time, perhaps—were met with the business end of hole punch, which left gaping black voids in place of hog’s bellysindustrial landscapes, and the faces of farmworkers.

In 1935, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was established as part of the New Deal to provide relief, recovery, and reform to rural areas. The FSA, created in 1937, was its spiritual successor. The FSA’s duties included, but were not limited to, operating camps for victims of the Dust Bowl, setting up homestead communities, and providing education to more than 400,000 migrant families. Communicating about its efforts was also part of its mandate…

Stryker sought out photographers, among them Dorothea LangeGordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, and made their images readily available to the press. Given the lack of new photography and art being produced during the Great Depression, the photos regularly appeared in magazines such as LIFE and Look. He also had them displayed at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, the 1936 World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, and other prominent venues. The publication of a series of early photographs, including Lange’s Migrant Mother, proved instrumental in pushing the federal government to provide emergency aid to migrant workers in California.

In the effort to represent the FSA and Roosevelt’s signature domestic achievement in a positive light, the chosen photos captured how the idealistic views of farm life were being tainted by poverty, and how the FSA programs were helping farmers reclaim their dignity. Common elements were decrepit housing conditions, the lack of food and clean water, and harsh work environments.

It was government propaganda, and there were certainly some within the government (both supporters and detractors) who saw it that way, and more who considered both the FSA and its photography project as communist and un-American. In a 1972 Interview, Stryker admits to having felt political pressure from the Department of Agriculture to portray the effectiveness of the New Deal. “Go to hell,” was his response. His photographers “were warned repeatedly not to manipulate their subjects in order to get more dramatic images, and their pictures were almost always printed without cropping or retouching.”

But there is a way to manipulate the story being told without altering the images themselves—the process of photo editing, of choosing which images to highlight and which to discard…

The fascinating story of one man’s (materially successful) effort to galvanize social and political opinion: “How a Hole Punch Shaped Public Perception of the Great Depression.”

And for an equally-fascinating consideration of how emerging new visual technologies might similarly be used to sway sentiment, read Fred Turner‘s “The Politics of Virtual Reality.”

* Richard Avedon

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As we celebrate skepticism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1977 that Nolan Bushnell (co-founder of video game pioneer Atari) opened the first Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre, ultimately a chain of family destinations that served pizza and other menu items, complemented by arcade games, amusement rides, and animatronic displays as a focus of entertainment (and often, birthday party celebration).  It took its name from its main animatronic character Chuck E. Cheese, a mouse who sang and interacted with guests.  Over 600 outlets are operating today in the U.S. and 17 other countries.

Chuck E. Cheese and Nolan Bushnell (Bushnell on right)

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“Space: the final frontier”*…

 

This is a time of much division. Families and communities are splintered by polarizing narratives. Outrage surrounds geopolitical discourse—so much so that anxiety often becomes a sort of white noise, making it increasingly difficult to trigger intense, acute anger. The effect can be desensitizing, like driving 60 miles per hour and losing hold of the reality that a minor error could result in instant death.

One thing that apparently still has the power to infuriate people, though, is how many spaces should be used after a period at the end of an English sentence.

The war is alive again of late because a study that came out this month from Skidmore College. The study is, somehow, the first to look specifically at this question. It is titled: “Are Two Spaces Better Than One? The Effect of Spacing Following Periods and Commas During Reading.”…

Find out the truth at “The Scientific Case for Two Spaces After a Period.”

* the words opening each episode of Star Trek

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As your correspondent basks in confirmation, we might recall that it was in 1770 that Germany and France moved past 30 years of animosity, celebrating their new alliance with the marriage of Archduchess Marie “let them eat cake” Antionette and Dauphin Louis-Auguste de France (soon enough to become King Louis XVI), in a lavish ceremony at Versailles, in front of more than 5000 guests.

A torrential thunderstorm pre-empted the fireworks planned for that evening; but the celebration continued through May 30th, when fireworks on Place de la Concorde killed 132 people– a grim omen of a reign that would prove tragic.

Marie Antoinette in her wedding dress, which was adorned with white diamonds

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Written by LW

May 16, 2018 at 1:01 am

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