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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Rats! And talking rats...

by Jamie Lutton

Templeton is one of the first talking rats most kids run into.  There are no talking rats in the Winnie the Pooh stories, the first place I encountered talking animals,  because even A. A. Milne would have trouble making a rat cute enough for parents to buy it.

But in Charlotte s Web, we find Templeton in his natural environment, living in the barn where Wilbur has his stall, and acting like a rat; skulking about underfoot,  eating garbage and old goose eggs that didn't hatch. Templeton is the character who give a note of realism  to the book, he is the one who breaks it to Wilbur  that he is being fattened for eating.  I go back and read this book mostly to read what Templeton had to say because of his trenchant wit, witty selfishness, and his cheerful gluttony.He makes an interesting foil for Charlotte the spider's cerebral warm nature  and Wilbur the pig's innocence.and chattiness. . .

There are smart talking  rats in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and there are smart mice like in the Miss Bianca series, and the Cricket in Times Square, and of course the Rat character in the classic The Wind in the Willows.. Then in adult books, there is Dr. Rat by Kotzwinkle, a dark novel narrated by a Rat who is the survivor of horrible lab experiments, a plea by the author for  for better treatment of lab animals.
I had read remarks linking death and rats where ever I looked. The Black Death still dominates human history.
  
20th century looked on the history of the world in staccato bursts when you start noticing, as a child.
Ancient Egypt -Classical Greece and Rome-Jesus is born and dies -medieval Europe-Rats and Black Death-New World-World War l +ll-Landing on the Moon-The present day-Bang!  it all seemed like a smooth path of human progress, with humans more or less in control, or at least fighting each other. ....... except the Black Death.which was incomprehensible  to the people it ravaged. 
And I knew it had something to do with rats...

The first book I read was Rats Lice, and History by Hans Zinsser, back in high school.  which explained that rats spread The Black Death, or Plague - which killed not only half the of the population in Europe  in 1350, but came back again and again, knocking down the population of Europe for 400 years.
And humans, smart humans, did not have a clue what caused it. No one had a clue what caused  the Black Death. Like the saying goes "life is a rat race and the rats are winning"
At the end of the book, it was revealed that modern medicine found the cause and the cure,though the use of the microscope; finding the culprit in the blood of rats,  so outbreaks could be stopped instead of just managed with quarantines. .
.
Some of the great books about the nature of rats I have read include Rats: Observations on the history & habitat of the city's most unwanted inhabitants (New York) by Robert Sullivan. This book is filled with close observations of how rats behave in this city, and thrive even though there are active and sophisticated  attempts to exterminate them all the time. The author watched one dirty alley in Lower   Manhattan, as well as visiting other cities like Chicago and Milwaukee.
More Cunning Than Man (a Complete History of the Rat and its role in Human Civilization) which covers the whole history of the interlined lives of the rats and humans. This book answers a lot of questions about why black and brown rats behave differently, how one species of rat supplanted the other,  and the impact of the European rat on the New World and the Far Pacific ecologies.
The Story of Rats (their impact on us, and our impact on them) by Anthony Barnett spends some time on the evolution of the white lab rat,  where it came from, and the great contribution lab rats have made to science.  This author spends a lot of time on rat behavior in the wild, and rat intelligence.

I can recommend all four of these books; they each take a different perspective on this animal.
As a local note, the reason we are not overrun with rats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in the city  is that at dawn, the rats when they do move about are picked off and eaten by crows. Rats are constantly on the move looking for new homes, trying to  expand their territory as they breed very fast.  In the suburbs, it is owls that are doing this work, at night, and hawks in the daytime,  but our local rat population is kept in check by hundreds and hundreds of hungry crows, who love the taste of wild rat.
Crows are, fortunately, even smarter than rats.  


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Last of the American locust swarms

by Jamie Lutton

"What do you make of that, Caroline?"
A cloud was over the sun. It was not like any could they had ever seen before. It was a cloud of something like snowflakes but they were larger than snowflakes, and thick and glittering. Light shone though each flickering particle. There was no wind, The grasses were still and the hot aid id not stir, but the edge of the cloud came on across the sky faster than a wind. The hair stood up on Jack's (the dogs) neck. All at once he made a frightful sound up at the cloud, a growl and a whine.".........


From On The Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder, page 194

This little girl's recollection of a enormous locust swarm descending from the sky is the best eyewitness account of one of the  locust swarms in the 19th century. These locusts, like but not identical to grasshoppers,  used to be the curse of the frontier farmer. The clouds of bugs, clouds so large that they could cover half a state, would arrive,seemingly from nowhere, and eat everything on the ground.  They would travel West to East, sometimes flying over several states, before alighting to feed.

But what happened to this insect, otherwise known as the Rocky Mountain Locust? Why have we not seen in a hundred and forty years the huge swarms of locusts that plagued the early American frontier farmer?

This is the puzzle in the science book Locust The Devastating Rise and mysterious disappearance of the insect that shaped the American frontier. by Jeffrey A  Lockwood.

I have never been much of a bug expert. I know the difference between an arachnid and a insect, and have read a bit about the evolution of insects, including the excellent books by E.O. Wilson on ants.  But I have always been more interested in big animals, like dinosaurs, whales, extinct mammals, and more recently extinct and living birds.  The small animals of the earth  held little interest for me.

This changed after I read Locusts.

This book is a history book as well as a science book. It is a personal account of Dr. Lockwood's struggle to know more about this vanished insect. He paints a picture of an implacable enemy of the 19th century American farmer; how swarms of insects, showing up in a  huge cloud in the sky every few summers,  clouds that could be  hundreds of miles wide, darkening the sky. They would descend and stripping the land of anything green; the sound of their chewing would be quite loud, since there would be millions of insects in the swarm . The locusts ate plants down to the stubble, other bugs; even chewed on clothes and human flesh in the frantic desire for calories and fat.

 Farmers would look up and, seeing a cloud on the horizon, realize that it was a cloud of locusts, and know that his crops would soon be completely devoured . The swarms would stay on the ground till all the green was gone, and lay their eggs.

This book has a detailed account of the 19th century relations between the farmers and the US government, who they appealed to for help. Starvation came in the winter of 1873, when the locusts ate a large percentage of  the crops like wheat in several western states. Also there is a detailed account of ingenious inventions  that tried to drive away or exterminate the locusts, either the mature bugs, their larvae or their eggs. This battle shaped American agriculture in the West, pushing the farmers to raise cattle instead, or to diversify into fruit trees or ground crops like potatoes, which could better withstand a locust attack. 

That this insect has disappeared in the United States in the early late 19th and early 20th century, and why it disappeared, is the mystery of this book, and the author tells the story very well, his path to figuring out where they went.

There was not effective war by man against the bug, like there was against the American Bison. who were wiped out to try to control/exterminate the Plains Indians.  Instead, the locusts vanished as a result of unintended consequences by the works of man.  Why and how this happened is a great mystery of American history of biology.

But one thing stood out for me personally was that I had read this all before as a little girl, in The Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder. This slightly fictionalized autobiography, one of several of Laura Ingall's childhood in the 19th century American West, first published in the 1930's, has an eye-witness account of a locust swarm attacking their farm.  I had found that account chilling and horrifying when I was a child, and remembered it all my life.This author credits Laura Ingalls for having the one of the best eye-witness accounts  of what it was like to live though a locust swarm attack.

The author focuses on how destructive these swarms were, and just how big they where. Showing up several years apart for decades, they were sometimes so big that they were hundreds of miles across.

He also spends a lot of time covering the farmer's pleas for help, and government reaction to this pest, and his own struggle to get information about these swarms. He even climbed a glacier to try to find traces of these swarms from times past from sampling the ice for insect fragments, as, curiously, no samples of their bodies survived to the 20th century.
I can strongly recommend this book for anyone fond of either science or natural history books.  By building the book around the great puzzle of 'how were these insects dealt with by the settlers and the government?" 'where did these swarms come from? What were they really like? 'where did the locusts go, why do they seem to be extinct?" the book is saved from being a dry tome aimed at just students of insects and American history.  I also found the writing to be very good; Jeffery Lockwood has a dry wit, when telling the detailed history of the 19th century farmers who had to cope with locusts

Even when relating the struggle he had to  to get the access to the governments old files on this bug, , the technical matters like the bodies of insects, and why they swarm, this book is not dry or dull. He has a mordant with, sometimes at his own expense, like Stephen Jay Gould is in his books. .

The cloud was hailing grasshoppers. The cloud was grasshoppers. Their bodies hid the sun and made darkness. Their thin large wings gleamed and glittered. The rasping whirling of their wings filled the whole air, and they hit the ground and the house with the noise of a hailstorm
          pg 195 On the Banks of Plum Creek.

In the end, the author discovers after years of research,  it was not new farming techniques or pesticides that destroyed the locust. It was (spoiler alert) that one small valley where the locust was indigenous, and swarmed from was farmed back in the 1880's. As this land was developed, there were few and smaller swarms, till in 1902, the last locusts were seen in Canada.

The swarm that Laura saw was one of the last huge ones; the farmers won in the end. Now, North America is the only continent free of Locust swarms.  The author managed to find a few, though; in a national park. As he examines and describes the living insect, you can feel the authors grave respect for this nearly extinct creature. .

Friday, December 20, 2013

On the importance of Alice in Wonderland

by John MacBeath Watkins

The popularity of a book is one measure of its importance, but more important and hard to quantify is its cultural impact. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland scores well on the first, but its cultural impact is seldom discussed.

The original press run of 2,000 copies sold out quickly when the book came out in December of 1865, and the book has never been out of print, which is enough to prove its appeal to readers. But it also represented a break with the past. It included parodies of a number of Victorian poems written for children, because Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson was not writing at children, he was writing for them.

Children had been told stories from mythology and fables from the oral traditions for as long as there had been story telling, an art form that must have come shortly after the invention of language. Aesop probably didn't write all of the stories attributed to him, but he did write them down. Much the same can be said of Charles Perrault, the 17th-century French writer of the Mother Goose stories. His Sleeping Beauty seems to be based on a medieval tale that had been adapted earlier in the 17th century by Giambattista Basile.

If you've read the unbowdlerized versions of folk tales, you know that some of them are terrifying. When I was a kid, we had a little hardcover volume of Irish fairy tales in which there were stories where people joined the fairies in a dance and were compelled to dance until their death, and I vividly recall one in which a girl is captured by a giant, who cuts off her feet to keep her from running away.

But these stories were not necessarily written for children. Perrault, for one, was definitely writing for adults, which might explain the inclusion of the Bluebeard story.

There was a tradition of writing morally uplifting stories specifically for children within Christianity. The Venerable Bede, best known for his history of the Anglo-Saxon church, wrote morality tales for children as well. One might have expected Charles Dodgson, a deacon in his church, to do the same, but he seems to have liked children too well to do this. In fact, most of the poems in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are parodies of exactly that type of work.

Consider Isaac Watts' Against Idleness and Mischief:

How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!

How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

And the Alice version:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

Not only is it funny, it scans better. Who the hell rhymes wax with makes?


Or consider a poem by David Bates, Speak Gently:

Speak gently! -- It is better far
To rule by love, than fear --
Speak gently -- let not harsh words mar
The good we might do here!

Which, in Alice, becomes:

Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes
He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases


Clearly, "Lewis Carroll" was writing to please his audience and make them laugh, not to firmly instruct them on morality. Some of the jokes are hard to get, unless you read The Annotated Alice, in which Martin Gardner provides the background needed.


Other jokes are hard to get without hearing them in an English accent, like the pun, "we call him a tortoise because he taught us." Americans pronounce the "r" and miss the joke.


The humor, whimsy, and fantasy was very different from the terrifying fairy tales people told in the oral tradition or the moralizing of so much of the literature purposely written for children. It represented the invention of a new kind of literature for children, not stories shared with adults (although plenty of adults love reading the book) or the moralizing of people who saw children as objects to be molded.

The parodies were subversive, making fun of the didactic moralizing of the children's literature that had preceded it, but the book was also interesting because it feels like there is a level of meaning below the surface. In fact, Douglas Hoffstadter called his philosophical work, Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid “A metaphorical fugue on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.” He also used some of the characters from Carroll's work, such as Achilles and the tortoise, in dialogues within his book. (In fact, he includes the dialogue between Achilles and the Tortoise that Carroll wrote for the journal Mind in his book.)

There is an argument that childhood as we now understand it was invented in the 18th century, when the first books really aimed at children were published by John Newberry. Stories like The History of Little Goody Two Shoes, published in 1765,were in theory aimed at children, but for sound marketing reasons were actually aimed at their parents, who wanted them instructed more than they wanted them entertained.

The existence of a professional class meant that there was a new class of children. They were not growing up on farms, where their labor became valuable as soon at they could lift a bucket. There had long been the merchant class, of course, but they put their children into the business as soon as they could, to teach them what they'd need to know to keep the business running.


But if you are a doctor, your patients don't want your kid handing you the scalpel, and if you are a lawyer, there's a long period before you can bring the next generation into the office. Childhood as a time when you went to school and remained in a sort of social chrysalis until your were grown up had been invented. As generation succeeded generation, you soon had parents with a sentimental memory of such a childhood, and a more indulgent attitude toward their children than a subsistence farmer could afford to have.


Not that growing up on a farm was all bad. When they rose early in the morning to milk the cows, my grandfather and my father would recite poetry to each other. Sometimes, they got so involved in it that they failed to shut off the milking machine until the cow reminded them. As such machines took some of the drudgery out of farming, kids growing up on farms could spend more time in school and prepare for a life beyond the farm.


Born from this new chrysalis of childhood was a literature that was designed to give pleasure to children instead of instruction. Alice is pure play, a book for the child to enjoy. But all mammals learn through play, and humans are no exception. Alice gave parents another lesson, that a book children actually want to read is better for their reading skills than a book their parents might prefer they read.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ideology and unemployment, Koch and Gates

by John MacBeath Watkins

Josh Barro, a conservative writer who has not turned off his brain, notices that Republican economic policy prescription  are always the same, regardless of the economic problem:

They favor lower taxes, less regulation, government spending cuts, more domestic energy production, school choice, free trade, and low inflation. They often cite these policies as ones that might alleviate recession and speed recovery. They favor these policies now, they favored them in 2008, and they favored them in 2004.
That is, conservatives favor the same set of economic policies when the economy is weak and when it is strong; when unemployment is high and when it is low; when few homeowners are facing foreclosure and when many are. The implication is that conservatives believe there is nothing in particular the government should do about economic cycles.
 He seems to think this is a bug, not a feature. The thing is, conservatives have become increasingly devoted to the notion that government is the problem, not the solution. In the 1980s, Milton Friedman was the leading conservative economist. He was a monetarist, which is to say, he thought that monetary policy could do the things Keynesians thought you needed fiscal policy to accomplish, like preventing a depression.

This elevated Federal Reserve Bank chairmen to a high level of esteem, because they were the most prominent figures in monetary policy. But the notion that government could do anything to make the country work better offends the modern conservative sensibility; they now admire leaders like Ron and Rand Paul, who would prefer to "end the fed" and go back on the gold standard.

In fact, they seem to wish to return to the disastrous economic policies of Andrew Jackson. If Jackson's policies in the 1830s are fairly described as "economic nostalgia," and he was unable to restore the nation of small farms and artisans back then, the Ron/Rand Paul nostalgia has even less chance.

But the ideology which wishes to deny government can do anything to help avoid or shorten recessions is not just a nostalgia for a lost nation of small farms. It is a throwback to an old notion of the relationship between virtue and wealth.

Remember that many of these conservatives are convinced America is a Christian nation, and most are Protestants. One of the most influential protestant notions is the Calvinist idea that wealth is a sign of God's favor. After all, Calvin believed in predestination, so your wealth was not a result of your own efforts, it was a sign that were one of the Elect.

This fits very well with the right's admiration for those who possess inherited wealth, such as the Koch brothers, and their efforts to eliminate the inheritance tax. The Koch family is Catholic, but a useful idea is there to be used, regardless of your religion, or the preferences of the leader of your religion, right?

The Koch brothers wear a peculiar expression, a rather superior, entitled look, as if they know they are better than you because they were born that way. Compare this to the expression typically worn by Bill Gates, who built his own fortune and carries an assortment of pretty ordinary expressions. Gates comes from a different culture. His father is an advocate for the state of Washington adopting an income tax, which would make its tax system less regressive (the bottom 20% of earners in the state pay a higher percent of the state's revenue than in any other state.)

And now that he's retired, Gates the younger is running the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is dedicated to the idea that "everyone deserves to live a healthy, productive life."

The Koch family foundations tend to finance political organizations and think tanks that support the idea that rich people deserve to get and keep more wealth. Oh, and ballet.

The economists who wrote Why Nations Fail suggested that the nature of a nation's institutions may dictate whether a nation becomes wealthy or fails to. Extractive institutions, they suggest, allow elites to impoverish their nations while enriching themselves. Gates is not a fan of the book, but he himself seems to be working to build an institution that is inclusive rather than extractive.

The point is, it makes a difference what sort of elites you have. Gates, like Warren Buffet, thinks that if the budget needs to be balanced, rich people should pay more taxes. That in itself indicates a preference for inclusive institutions, which tend to be based on the idea that we're all in this together.

The Koch brothers spend a good deal of money supporting the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works hard on repealing the inheritance tax. It seems clear that they are trying to change our institutions to extract less from them, and more from those less fortunate, which is pretty much a useful definition of extractive elites.

Because elites have an outsized role in shaping their society's institutions, the culture of the elites seems to matter a great deal. The Republican Party, which has an increasingly naked agenda of shaping the country in a way that benefits its donors, always has the same agenda because those donors always have the same agenda. After all, it's not like the Koch brothers are likely to lose their homes when unemployment is high, so why should they ask that the party they help finance adopt policies that help those who might have that problem?

 Fortunately, not all of our elites share their approach. Unfortunately, most of those who spend a lot of money on politics do.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Outsourcing the Downton Abbey economy

by John MacBeath Watkins

It seems I'm not the only one to notice that we're headed for a economy of servants and rich people.

A household cook typically earned $10 a week in 1910, century-old books on the etiquette of hiring servants show. That is $235 per week in today’s money, while the federal minimum wage for 40 hours comes to $290 a week. 
At first blush, that looks like a real raise of $55 a week, or nearly a 25 percent increase in pay. But in fact, the 2013 minimum-wage cook is much worse off than the 1910 cook. Here’s why:
Johnston is saying that instead of a live-in cook, wealthy families are going out to eat. I'm not sure how often the 1% eat at McDonald's, I suspect they eat in more salubrious surroundings, but I'm not sure how much their servers get paid.

But those who do work in the homes don't typically live there. There's little information on domestic workers because Congress exempts them from those professions on which the Bureau of Labor Statistics gathers information, but Johnston links to a study that shows average domestic workers are spending 60% of their income on housing.

Those who do live in the home they work in are paid less, are less likely to get at least 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep, and are more than twice as likely to be threatened, insulted and verbally abused. (table 4 on the same link.)

In my first post on this topic, I recalled the family joke my grandfather learned from his parents, who had both been servants on an English estate: "There are two kinds of people, those who are good to their servants, and those who don't," a cynical take on the way people who employ servants often didn't treat them as people, even if they are "good to their servants."

Based on the research Johnston unearthed, I'd say those who are good to their servants in the current economy are vanishingly rare.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ancient art comes from the hands of women

by Jamie Lutton

I came across an astounding story from the world of archeology last month. I mentioned it to a few people, and I seem to be the only one who saw the article, so I am passing it on to you.

Archaeologist Dean R. Snow of Pennsylvania State University, studying the prehistoric cave art in Spain and France, that date back to before 40,000 years ago, has concluded that some or all of the paintings were done by women.

He reached this conclusion because the artists, over thousands of years, left hand prints behind them by blowing paint through a tube at  their hands while they held them up to the wall. These prints date back to the same time as the artwork.
Archeologists, noticing that the hand prints were small, thought that they had been left by teenagers, as the prints were smaller than the average 'adult' hand. By which they meant, adult male hand.

But there is a little known tendency for adult male and females hands to have different finger lengths.   In most men, the ring finger is longer than in most females hands.  So, after a century of staring at these hands, someone finally noticed that they are women's hands.



So, American Antiquity published Snow's report a few months ago that most of the hands in the cave art, which is 40,000 to 12,500 yeas old,

The very oldest art in the world, art that is found in hundreds of caves, and was painted over tens of thousands of years, seem to have been painted mainly by women. Of 32 prints, 24 were from women's hands, five were adolescent male hands, and three were adult male hands.

One of the problems in the West is the base canard that women do not have the 'genius'  or 'creativity' to be great painters. Women were not mentored to be painters, or if they were, they were daughters or mistresses of '''more important'' painters, such as the modern case of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo (though, after their deaths, her paintings are far more important).
With this new information, the text of  all the books  on ancient cave art will have to be tossed out, and rewritten. 

And perhaps we can start telling our daughters and nieces that the greatest and earlier artists of Europe, the ancient cave artists, were women...show them the wonderful books out there with the paintings of bison, and elephants, and giraffes, and tell them that these are your heritage. And you can go and be a great painter, too.

When I was a child of five, I won a contest painting a  watercolor of a ''caveman'' throwing a spear at an Mammoth or Mastodon from a cave. It was realistic, more or less; I still have it (my mother had it framed). I have always been fascinated by both the animals of the ancient past, the people of the time, and what they looked like.  I still collect books on these subjects.

I own about eight or nine books on cave art; I buy the new ones when they come out, with new photography, and I go to the films of them when they are created.

I find that this news to be  a grand example of unconscious bias when only men are writing the book's and doing the research on the history of art.  People say, well, feminism is dead, but not when we still tell our girls that 'this is not for them' in any field. 
Who knows..perhaps someday we will find...surprise! that some of the beautiful ancient Egyptian art or Sumerian art was created by women.  Or the art of the ancient Far East, in China, or Japan.

When men write the books, at least in Western culture, they seem to forget half the human race when they attribute the creation of beautiful or important artifacts of human history.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Chinglish, an art form under threat

by John MacBeath Watkins

As the use of English as an international language moves on apace, people who are not native speakers are using it to communicate more and more. In China, the phenomenon of the resulting imperfect translations is called Chinglish, and the government frowns on it.

Some of this, as noted in the link above, results from over-reliance on translation software, as in the case of the restaurant owner who ran the name of his establishment run though translation software, then printed up a banner with the result: 'TRANSLATE SERVER ERROR'.

Which I'm guessing was not the name of the restaurant.

Robert Frost said "poetry is that which is lost in translation." But sometimes, translation creates poetry:





I'm guessing that's not far from the author's intent, actually.

Sometimes, the original sense is difficult to divine:




I promise my employees that however troubled I may become, I will not follow this management advice.

There is a naivete that I find attractive in even the most awkward examples:

(from this source.)

But even as this art form is gaining popularity, officialdom is cracking down on it.

Late last month, the southern city of Shenzhen launched a two-month campaign intended to remove all Chinglish signs with the help of local English-literate residents. The Shenzhen Daily reported that people were being encouraged to take pictures of incorrect English usage or grammar issues on public signs and use social media to report them to the appropriate people. People who sent in photos were asked to include the location of the signs and detail the mistakes made, at which point the city’s foreign affairs office would look through submissions.

I can only imagine what horrible blunders I would make, as a non-Chinese-speaking person, trying to get the sense of what I wanted to say in a sign I couldn't read after I'd had it translated.

An interesting aspect of this is that in international corporations where English is made the standard language of the company, you'd think that being a native speaker would be an advantage. But native speakers tend to use elaborate constructions and colloquialisms that confuse non-native speakers, so perhaps it's better to be a skilled student of the language than a native speaker.




Norman Cohn: A medevial Historian who has influenced modern thought

by Jamie Lutton

The best popular historians write about the past in a way that illuminates the present. Barbara Tuchman's medieval history book A Distant Mirror for example, stresses this even in the title. Also the best are those who can be read by the general public, not just by academics. Another historian of this type who I like even more is Norman Cohn, the author of several very good books on the medial and classical world, that illuminate the ideological roots of the wars and genocides of the 20th century.

Like Tuchman, Norman Cohn was not a trained historian; he was a student of languages instead.   He was worked  for British Intelligence just after the end of World War ll as an interpreter in the interrogation of captured German SS officers and refugees fleeing the Soviets from the Eastern Europe. This shattering experience shaped all of his writings.  Using his knowledge of both modern and medieval languages, he read extensively the surviving documents of the religious heretics from 1000 to 1600, to draw  a picture of how these 'heretics,' or religious movements, of Europe shaped modern ideological thought, both for good and for ill.

The desire for the poor to improve their lot in the West was blended with and was driven by the New Testament prophecies of a final struggle between Christ and an Antichrist, and the emergence of a paradise. This belief in the perfectibility of the world jumped languages, countries, cultures and centuries to be translated into secular discourse, never loosing its power to jolt the ordinary people and inspire them to rise up.
But unfortunately it also inspired the desire to suppress, harass, and often kill dissenters of all types.

So in essence, this belief inspired both the later followers of Marx and Hitler, for example, in the modern era, and developed a belief in totalitarian  thought and action, driving both social aspersions, and animosities.Hitler, for example, seems to be pagan, but still has the themes of an 'elect' (Aryans) prevailing over and dominating/destroying everyone else -- non Aryans, Jews, etc.

This seems to explain why modern totalitarian ideologies often resemble each other closely,  political and religious ideologies alike. The best example from today is the curious way conservative Islam resembles our own conservative Christianity, and how they both resemble Soviet Communism in Russia, or, China in the late 20th century, in their mutual absolutism and belief in strict adherence to certain narrow beliefs and goals.  Also, sadly, tendency to violence to carry out such beliefs.
Another good book on this subject is Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which discusses the attraction to such belief systems, and how they seduce people into following them.

For a end of the year gift to a friend who loves medieval history, modern political writing, Marxism,  or is interested in the history of the Christianity in the middle ages, I also recommend Norman Cohn's book: The Pursuit of the Millennium and Europe's Inner Demons, The Demonizaton of Christians in medieval Christendom.

I also want to recommend his book Warrant for Genocide, The Myth of World Jewish Supremacy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,  Norman Cohn demonstrates how this pamphlet was  the blueprint of the Final Solution.  This pamphlet, which casts a long shadow even today, is dissected by Norman Cohn as to it's origin, the text, and its heinous misuse.
In the modern new era of The Big Lie in  American politics, where we again are fighting the agents of totalitarian  thought,  this book is is an excellent gift for any serious reader.
  
For this author alone asks the question of where our deepest beliefs come from? And are these useful anymore?

We cannot be horrified by the excesses of, say, the modern Muslim faith without out understanding where they came from, and that we as a Christan culture share many of these same excesses because our shared belief in apocalypse and the persecution of minorities. And that aspects of Christianity morphed into Naziism, State Communism, and other totalitarian forms of government.

The blind belief in the rightness of all that  we do and say, and our right to suppress those who disagree with us, in the name of God or security or even just automatically, as a public good.
Our right to wage war on other nations, to jail citizens for private behavior like taking drugs, and to control others' private lives in the name of morality, such as in our marriage customs, birth control and abortion, do not horrify us as they should.

It is about time we  understood ourselves better, and faced the insidious influence of these old belief systems on our freedoms, and on reason.   For we cannot repudiate that which we do not thoroughly understand.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Are we headed for a Downton Abbey economy?

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've discussed the Star Trek "replicator economy," but what if a world with little labor needed to support life gave us a "Downton Abbey" economy?

I watch little television, but I recently caught a few shows of Downton Abbey, and was struck by the way it emphasizes the lives of the servants.
Longleat House, an English stately home

Now, it's an odd thing, but even though there are more people descended from servants than from nobility, a great deal of literature talks mainly about the people who hire (or, in the case of Gone With the Wind, own) servants rather than about the lives of the servants.

And given the growing inequality in our society, chances are that more people will be working as servants in the future.

We face a future in which less and less of human activity pays well enough to support life, and we will find ourselves pushed into the remaining professions. What those professions will be depends in part on what the distribution of wealth is. In a society with greater equality than the one we have, we might make our livings by entertaining each other, or as the saying goes, taking in each other's washing. In a society with greater inequality, we will take in the washing of those better off than us.

My grandfather, Amos Watkins, was a farmer descended from and English gardener and a maid from Scotland, who met while working at an estate near London.  He told me the family's morbid joke: "There are two kinds of people in this world, those who are good to their servants and those who aren't."

Because if you are a servant, you didn't count as a person. Which is why they emigrated to America, where their son was able to work for himself as a farmer. (Amos never owned most of the land he worked, so I suppose he'd be called a tenant farmer.)

His maternal grandfather, John MacBeath, had worked for himself, first in a fishing and crofting village that no longer exists, because life there was too hard, later operating a ferry at Inverness (actually a row and sail boat small enough that if it needed to move a cow across the Inverness, the cow had to swim behind while tethered to the boat.) At some point, it became a better deal to leave the poverty of 19th century Scotland and become a servant in England, though my great-grandmother had a strong personality and no doubt chafed at being anyone's servant.

The economic problem is, while most parts of the economy are not going to see a reduction of marginal unit costs reduced to near zero, they are seeing unit labor costs drop. At the time of the American revolution, the most common professions were farmer and sailor. Farming, forestry and fishing now employs about 0.7% of our workforce, according to the CIA World Factbook. The same source shows that in Afghanistan, more than 78% of the population works in these trades. Our remaining farmers are far more productive, not just per hour, but in most cases, per acre.

Such productivity is part of the reason we are more wealthy than the Afghans are. And what happens when you don't have people working in one sector is, they go to work in another. It wasn't hard to get people to trade backbreaking work on a farm for working in a factory or an office, but what is the next step? Expert systems are making inroads into formerly well-paid, professional work like that done by lawyers, but we will probably still have to pay for legal advice. 
What will remain will be "high touch" professions in which the attention of another human being is a big part of the transaction.Commanding the attention of others is the ultimate luxury, the one served by all classes of conspicuous consumption.

Thorstein Veblen was writing during the previous high point in inequity in the U.S., christened "the gilded age" my Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Veblen noted that the rentier class spent money on things people would notice, things not necessary to human life, to demonstrate their economic power. This prompted the invention of another term, "invidious consumption," that is, consumption intended to provoke envy.

I've been around boats most of my life, and I see this every time I'm on the water. The smaller the boat, the more it gets used, and the more fun people seem to have with it, so what's with all the huge powerboats loitering at the dock? Their owners value having them more than using them, because of what they symbolize. I recall seeing a man in his 60s making a rare appearance on his big motor yacht with a bikini-wearing woman in her 20s at his side. The women I was with were close to the age of the man, and bridled against the sight, so I made them feel better by saying, "so what if the man wants to go boating with his daughter?"

Men with a trophy wife on their arm are trying to provoke envy. This makes youth and beauty fungible. If the woman in the bikini chose to become a trophy wife, she could gain a life of wealth and ease, and if she divorced well, she could get a hunk to drape on her own arm, and provoke envy for both her wealth and her hunk. If she made her own fortune, the boy toy would only make people respect her less, so beautiful young men find fewer opportunities to advance by marrying well.

Many women, and many men, would not want to marry for money because they consider it demeaning; it is a subservient role which one would not have to serve in a more equal relationship. Even servants, for the most part, do not wish to be subservient in their domestic arrangements. Perhaps this was especially so in the world of Edwardian England, when people like my great grandparents were lucky to have such a good job as to be a servant.

How much more comfort do the people of the Crawley family gain from hiring a second footman at Downton Abbey? Footmen were chosen for looks, and performed duties that were of little importance, but they gave the place a look of class. That's part of the logic of having servants. They are not just there to do things you'd rather not do yourself, like mucking out the stables, they are also there to be your entourage, to make you feel important.

That's going to be the last job technology cannot do. In an unequal society, it is the job much of the population will have to do. That's what a Downton Abbey economy would look like.