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Posts Tagged ‘history

“There is always danger for those who are afraid”*…

 

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Civil War hero Buffalo Bill Cody changed the face of entertainment when his Wild West show began touring the country in 1883. Buffalo Bill’s operation, which included mock bison hunts and Indian war reenactments, bronco riding and roping, and marksmanship competitions, went on to engender a number of other imitators, including Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and California Frank Hafley’s Wild West Attractions, which traveled the United States from 1905 to 1940.

While displays of masculinity were prominent in these shows, just as important was their showcasing of the skills necessary for “surviving” in the “Wild West,” abilities that women like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane had in spades. Hafley’s show heavily featured women in rodeo events like the sharpshooting comedy routine in which Lillian Smith, a former competitor of Annie Oakley’s and Hafley’s first wife, shot targets from the mouth or head of Mamie Francis, Hafley’s second wife.

Among the most popular performances at Wild West Attractions was a new sport with a dubious connection to the West: horse diving, an event in which a horse and its female rider jumped from a 50-foot tower into a small pool of water. It took more courage than all the other events combined, and only Mamie Francis had the gumption to do it. Between 1908 and 1914, Francis and her Arabian horse Babe completed 628 dives from five stories up a rickety wooden scaffolding…

Thrills and chills at “These women were the toughest performers in the Wild West.”

 * George Bernard Shaw

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As we prepare to plummet, we might spare a thought for Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (better known as Vespasian); he died on this date in 79 CE. Vespasian was crowned Emperor of Rome in 69 after a year of civil strife following the death of Nero; he served for six years and founded the Flavian Dynasty that ruled the Empire for another 20 years.  Vespasian was judged (by Suetonius and others) to have been a witty and effective ruler, even as he had to govern through severe financial turmoil.  Indeed, to this day urinals are known in Italian as vespasiano, a vestige of Vespasian’s tax on urine (which was valuable in his day for its ammoniac content).

Vespasian is also remembered for a series of large construction projects that he undertook during his reign– the largest of which was “The Flavian Amphitheater”… or as we now know it, the Roman Colosseum.

Roman aureus depicting Vespasian as Emperor; the reverse shows the goddess Fortuna.

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Written by LW

June 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust”*…

 

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More than 40 percent of the global population, more than 2 billion people, have a dust problem. Not “dust” meaning the grey puffs under the couch, but the dust of the Dust Bowl: microscopic soil particles, less than 0.05 millimeters across, so small that they get hoisted up into the wind and end up in people’s lungs.

We know that large amounts of dust are linked to premature death. However, climate change is expected to make the problem much worse in the next century, and scientists still don’t know how much. In the next century, the lethal range of dust is expected to proliferate. Between now and 2050, the many as 4 billion people, half the world’s population, are expected to live in drylands. It’s not because people are migrating there. Drylands are growing because of (you guessed it) climate change

Dust is known to cause premature deaths, but climate change’s effect on how bad our dust problems will get remains notoriously understudied: “A global Dust Bowl is coming.”

* T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

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As we do our best to go green, we might send grateful birthday greetings to Arthur Hinton “Art” Rosenfeld; he was born on this date in 1926.  A physicist at U.C Berkeley, he was moved by the oil embargo of 1973 to turn his attention to energy conservation, founding and leading the Center for Building Science at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  Over the next 37 years he developed new standards which helped improve energy efficiency in California and subsequently worldwide.  His work helped lead to such breakthroughs as low-energy electric lights, such as compact fluorescent lamps, low-energy refrigerators, and windows that trap heat.  In his fight against global warming, he saved Americans billions of dollars in electricity bills– and earned the nickname, “godfather of energy efficiency.”

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Rosenfeld receiving the 2011 Medal for Technology and Innovation from President Obama

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Written by LW

June 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…

 

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy…

Knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response.  But in an age of all-knowing algorithms, how do we choose not to know?  Two scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development argue that “We Need to Save Ignorance From AI.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we consider closing our eyes, we might send discoverable birthday greetings to Tim Bray; he was born on this date in 1955.  A seminal software developer and entrepreneur, he is probably best known as the co-author of the original specifications for the XML and XML namespace, open standards that fueled the growth of the internet (by setting down simple rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable), and as the co-founder of the Open Text Corporation, which released the Open Text Index, one of the first popular commercial web search engines.

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Written by LW

June 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit … a mobility of illusory forms immobilised in space”…

 

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Three months ago, I was a normal person. Now all I think about 24-7 is the dinkus. Did you know that dinkuses is an anagram of unkissed? I did. For the uninitiated, the dinkus is a line of three asterisks (* * *) used as a section break in a text. It’s the flatlining of an asterism (⁂), which in literature is a pyramid of three asterisks and in astronomy is a cluster of stars.

The dinkus has none of the asterism’s linguistic association with the cosmos, but that’s why I love it. Due to its proximity to the word dingus, which means, to define one ridiculous word with another, “doodad,” dinkus likely evolved from the Dutch and German ding, meaning “thing.” To the less continental ear, dinkus sounds slightly dirty, and I can confirm that it’s brought serious academics to giggles.

For me, a writer and reader, its crumbiness is its appeal. I need some crumbs to lure me down the page…

Daisy Alioto‘s “Ode to the Dinkus.”

* James Joyce, Ulysses

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As we separate our sections, we might recall that it was on this date in 1248 that The University of Oxford received its Royal Charter from King Henry III.   While it has no known date of foundation, there is evidence of teaching as far back as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation (after the University of Bologna).

The university operates the world’s oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world, and the largest academic library system in Britain.  Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 29 Nobel laureates, 27 prime ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world.  Sixty-nine Nobel Prize winners, 4 Fields Medalists, and 6 Turing Award winners have studied, worked, or held visiting fellowships at Oxford.

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Written by LW

June 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”*…

Kobe sliders: “I’m waiting to see the end of the Kobe slider. I’d be really happy to see that gone. The Kobe slider is an indication of a douche economy that’s threatening to me personally. It’s like bottle service at the nightclub; it’s a societal ill. It’s a clear example of nothing being added to the slider experience by using Kobe beef other than the price. No one who orders a Kobe slider wants the unctuous, fatty experience of ordering a Kobe steak. What they want is bragging rights in front of their princes of douchedom around them so they can all high five. It’s part of the ‘bro’ culture I find troubling.”

Fond remembrance…  one of twenty provocative peeves at “Here’s an abbreviated list of everything that Anthony Bourdain hates.”

* Anthony Bourdain

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As we prepare for the ride, we might pause to think some celebratory thoughts:  today is Juneteenth.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on September 22, 1862 (effective January 1, 1863), word was slow to spread.  On June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger, who’d arrived  in Galveston, Texas, with 2,000 federal troops  to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves, read “General Order No. 3” from a local balcony:

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Former slaves in Galveston celebrated in the streets; Juneteenth observances began across Texas the following year– and are now recognized as State Holidays by 41 states.

Ashton Villa in Glaveston, from whose front balcony the Emancipation Proclamation was read on June 19, 1865 (source)

 Juneteenth celebration in Austin, c.1900 (source)

Juneteenth has become a popular time for family reunions and gatherings. As with most social events, food takes center stage. Juneteenth is often commemorated by barbecues and the traditional drink – Strawberry Soda – and dessert – Strawberry Pie. Other red foods such as red rice (rice with tomatoes), watermelon and red velvet cake are also popular.  The red foods commemorate the blood that was spilled during the days of slavery.

Written by LW

June 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I’m living so far beyond my income that we may almost be said to be living apart”*…

 

The U.S. national debt is once again raising alarm bells. Federal borrowing from outside investors expanded rapidly over the past decade, totaling more than $15 trillion in 2018, and it is projected to grow even faster over the next ten years under current law. Major budget legislation signed by President Donald J. Trump, along with continued growth in entitlements and higher interest rates, will see the debt nearly double by 2028 [PDF], coming close to the size of the entire U.S. economy.

If the debt continues to grow at an unsustainable level, it could expose the country to a number of dangers, economists say. In the extreme, the risk rises that Washington’s lenders, many of whom are foreign, could suddenly lose confidence, demand higher interest rates, and potentially trigger a fiscal crisis. Short of that, the rising debt could gradually squeeze discretionary spending and deny the country tools it needs for security and economic stability. Bringing the debt into check, experts say, will likely require politically difficult decisions to either curb entitlement spending, significantly raise taxes, or both…

A backgrounder from the Council on Foreign Relations: “The National Debt Dilemma.”

It should be noted that there are those who disagree with CFR (and the many others) who see the need to bring the deficit into balance via reduced spending and/or higher taxes: “The Radical Theory That the Government Has Unlimited Money.”

* e e cummings

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As we parse “prudence,” we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Franco Modigliani; he was born on this date in 1918.  An economist, he originated the life-cycle hypothesis, which attempts to explain the level of saving in the economy, suggesting that consumers aim for a stable level of consumption throughout their  lifetime (for example by saving during their working years and then spending during their retirement)– for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1985.

Among his other accomplishments, he initiated the Monetary/Fiscal Debate when he (and co-author Albert Ando) wrote a scathing critique of an early 1960s paper by Milton Friedman and David Meiselman.  Freidman and Meiselman had argued (in effect) that monetary policy was the only effective tool in managing an economy; Modigliani and Ando pointed out flaws in their analysis and made the case for fiscal measures (effectively, government spending) as equally-effective tools.  The debate– known by the antagonists’ initials as the AM/FM Debate– rages to this day.

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Written by LW

June 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity”*…

 

Some essays are letters into the future. “The Prevention of Literature” is one such essay, and today I’d like to respond to it from 2018.

Orwell argues that totalitarianism makes literature impossible. By literature, he means all kinds of writing in prose, from imaginative fiction to political journalism; he suggests that verse might slip through the cracks. He writes, too, that there is such a thing as “groups of people who have adopted a totalitarian outlook”—single-truth communities of sorts, not just totalitarian regimes or entire countries. These are deadly to literature as well.

Orwell was writing in 1946, five or seven years before scholarly works by Hannah Arendt, on the one hand, and Karl Friedrich, on the other, provided the definitions of totalitarianism that are still in use today. Orwell’s own “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” which provides the visceral understanding of totalitarianism that we still conjure up today, was a couple of years away. Orwell was in the process of imagining totalitarianism—he had, of course, never lived in a totalitarian society.

He imagined two major traits of totalitarian societies: one is lying, and the other is what he called schizophrenia. He wrote, “The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as it is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.” The lying entailed constantly rewriting the past to accommodate the present. “This kind of thing happens everywhere,” he wrote, “but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past, and in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth.”

He goes on to imagine that “a totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist.”

Orwell was right. The totalitarian regime rests on lies because they are lies. The subject of the totalitarian regime must accept them not as truth—must not, in fact, believe them—but accept them both as lies and as the only available reality. She must believe nothing. Just as Orwell predicted, over time the totalitarian regime destroys the very concept, the very possibility of truth. Hannah Arendt identified this as one of the effects of totalitarian propaganda: it makes everything conceivable because “nothing is true.”

As for what he called “schizophrenia,” this, too, has been borne out. In 1989, as the longest-running totalitarian experiment in the world, the U.S.S.R., neared what then appeared to have been its demise, a great sociologist named Yuri Levada and his team undertook a large study of Soviet society. He concluded that the Soviet person’s very self-concept depended on a constant negotiation of mutually exclusive perceptions: the Soviet person identified strongly with the great Soviet state and its grand experiment, and yet felt himself to be insignificant; he worshipped at the altar of modernity and progress, and yet lived in conditions of enforced poverty, often deprived of modern conveniences that even the poor in the West had come to take for granted; he believed in egalitarianism and resented evident inequality, yet accepted the extreme hierarchical order and rigid class structure of Soviet society. To live in his world—simply to function day to day, balancing between contradictory perceptions—the Soviet person had to engage in constant negotiations. In “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” Orwell predicted this negotiation, and named it doublethink. You will recall that “even to understand the word doublethink involved the use of doublethink.” Doublethink destroyed the mind and crushed the soul, and yet it was essential for survival. It killed as it saved, and that, too, is doublethink.

But perhaps Orwell’s most valuable observation in this essay concerns instability. “What is new in totalitarianism,” he wrote, “is that its doctrines are not only unchallengeable but also unstable. They have to be accepted on the pain of damnation, but on the other hand, they are always liable to be altered on a moment’s notice.” Orwell had observed the disfavor and disappearance of prominent Bolsheviks and the resulting adjustments to the official narratives of the Revolution—the endlessly changing and vanishing commissars. Arendt argued that the instability was, in fact, the point and purpose of the purges: the power of the regime depended not so much on eliminating particular men at particular moments but on the ability to eliminate any man at any moment. Survival depended on one’s sensitivity to the ever-changing stories and one’s ability to mold oneself to them.

But why, exactly, did Orwell think all this was so destructive to literature?…

The marvelous Masha Gessen explains in her important essay (adapted from a lecture delivered in Barcelona at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona on June 6, 2018, in honor of Orwell Day), “George Orwell predicted the challenge of writing today.

C.f. also Cass Sunstein’s piece in the current issue of The New York Review of Books, “It Can Happen Here.”

* George Orwell

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As we say no to non-sense, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that “Liberty Enlightening the World”– a symbol of anti-totalitarian democracy and a token of friendship from the French to the U.S. that is better known these day as the “Statue of Liberty”– entered New York Harbor.  Encased in more than 200 crates, the statue was reassembled, placed on its pedestal on (what was then known as) Bedloe’s Island, then dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in October, 1886.

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Written by LW

June 17, 2018 at 1:01 am

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