Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Upcoming events: History Club pub and Kozuskanich seminar on on constitutional research in the digital age

On Thursday evening the History Club is presenting another pub. Here's what they say:

The second History Pub is this Thursday, November 1 at the Bull and Quench (upstairs) starting at 9 pm. Come dressed up as someone from a historical era and you could win one of our two prizes. There will also be a trivia challenge! So come out and join us for a night of drinks and fun.

On Friday afternoon Dr. Nathan Kozuskanich will be giving an interesting seminar presentation on new frontiers in research on the origins of the American Constitution. Details here.

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Aristocracy, communism, and Burma

Now that the pro-democracy movement in Burma has been crushed, again, and the country has once again disappeared from the news, here's a link to what Phil Paine said about the situation about two weeks ago: no hope for democratic reform in Burma or many other places while the forces of world aristocracy dominate the scene. Here's a sample, read the rest at Phil's site.

So what can a supporter of democracy learn from this disheartening spectacle of tyranny, treachery, and hypocrisy?

First of all, it should put to rest the nonsensical idea that transnational corporations are in any way opponents of, or hostile to communist dictatorships. They never have been, and never will be. The global aristocracy sees and understands that a communist dictatorship is a corporation. A communist party is an organization whose purpose is to capture a population and enslave it, so that its production can be sold on the global market, for the benefit of a controlling aristocratic elite. The people ruled by a communist regime are its cows and pigs, and global business is perfectly happy to see them slaughtered and turned into salable products. The Party leadership is the corporation's board of directors and major shareholders. The global aristocracy recognizes them as an oligarchy just like themselves. It will happily do business with them, provided they play by the rules, fulfill their contracts, and don’t randomly expropriate global investments. No communist dictatorship has ever lacked eager investment and co-operation from major corporations.

This is what communism, as an ideology, is all about. It's what Marx intended, and what it has been in practice, in every case, without exception. Once in power, the regime may chose to use terror and slave labour to extract resources, in a crude way, such as Mao, Lenin, and Stalin did. They murdered millions to create the maximum state of fear and submission, then set the survivors to digging in mines or harvesting soy beans or sugar cane, and sold the product on the global market. But a communist regime may also set up a more feudal arrangement, easing the reins, giving their captive population enough elbow room to produce more efficiently by personal enterprise, but always retaining the power to extract a lucrative percentage, and always maintaining the ultimate power to crush dissidence and control all transactions. It is this hold on central power that is the heart of the communist ideology, not some particular arrangement of management policy. If the regime choses the looser option, it is not any less communist, and it is not in any significant way changing its ideology. Much nonsense has been written about China “abandoning communism”. This is not even remotely the case. Anyone who is naively waiting for “democratic reforms” to blossom in the regime will wait for eternity. As long as the cash flows in abundance, from global corporate and state transactions, the communist aristocracy will never voluntarily relinquish their power. Why should they? What would make them? In fact, the Party in Beijing has made it perfectly plain that any movement toward democracy among the people of China will be swiftly and brutally crushed. This will not change.


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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Inside Iraq bloggers honored for courage in journalism

Mainline journalism has so completely and contemptibly failed to play an honest role in the current period of world turmoil and danger, that it is a pleasure to report on good journalists being honored.

McClatchy, a news service until recently known as Knight-Ridder, is one of the more respectable
American media outlets, and does good reporting from Baghdad. Part of the reason for their success is the talent and dedication of their Iraqi employees, who besides their other duties write a blog called Inside Iraq, which for months has been on my blogroll on the right side of this page.

Despite the dangers that face all journalists from various types of violence, some of it specifically aimed at them, these bloggers have given one of the best and most affecting views of what the war in Iraq means to Iraqis. On Tuesday, six of them, all women, were awarded the International Women's Media Foundation Courage in Journalism Award. For more, see the McClatchy site.


Living in the present: Phil Dick's world

The same evening I watched 300, set in a mythic past where people with delusions of godhood really like body piercings, I saw on TV an episode of CSI: New York where the cops had to investigate a murder by tracking his/her avatar down in Second Life. I've occasionally written here about my occasional sense of "living in the future;" watching the episode Down the Rabbit Hole, I had a slightly different feeling, that I was living inside a Philip K. Dick novel. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer who worked mainly in the 1960s and 70s. If you don't know his books, you may have seen films based on his work, especially Blade Runner and Total Recall. I'm very fond of Blade Runner, which I think Dick would have liked, but even it does not give more than a hint of what Dick's universe was like. He was scorned by many dedicated SF readers back then because he tended to focus on the ludicrous or trivially aggravating aspect of the future. A good example is quoted in a recent article on Dick in the New Yorker (brilliantly entitled Blows against the Empire; hijack the starship!):

In “Ubik” (1969)...the first premise is that the ancient human dream of communication with the dead has been achieved at last—but, when you go to speak with them, there is static and missed connections and interference, and then you argue over your bill. At the beginning of the novel, one of the heroes, Runciter, tries to connect with his “passed” wife, Ella:

“Is something the matter, Mr. Runciter?” the von Vogelsang person said, observing him as he floundered about. “Can I assist you?”
“I’ve got some thing coming in over the wire,” Runciter panted, halting.
“Instead of Ella. Damn you guys and your shoddy business practices; this shouldn’t happen, and what does it mean?” . . .
“Did the individual identify himself?”
“Yeah, he called himself Jory.”
Frowning with obvious worry, von Vogelsang said, “That would be Jory Miller. I believe he’s located next to your wife. In the bin.”
“But I can see it’s Ella!”
“After prolonged proximity,” von Vogelsang explained, “there is occasionally a mutual osmosis, a suffusion between the mentalities of half-lifers. Jory Miller’s cephalic activity is particularly good; your wife’s is not. That makes for an unfortunately one-way passage of protophasons. . . . If this condition persists your money will be returned to you.” . . .
Facing the casket, von Vogelsang pressed the audio outlet into his ear and spoke briskly into the microphone. . . . “This is very unfair of you, Jory; Mr. Runciter has come a long way to talk to his wife. Don’t dim her signal, Jory; that’s not nice.”
As the author of this article, Adam Gopnik, implies, this is just too similar to someone today complaining about their telecom problems.

I got a strong Phil Dick flavor from Down the Rabbit Hole. It partly took place in an online social interaction "world," and this had a touch of Dick's fascination with reality lurking behind appearances and semi-human simulacra. Most of the action, it turned out, was the result of a plot to kill a Congressman who met women in Second Life as a way of initiating affairs; Dick could have written that, his books were full of fraught relationships. But what drew the Dick comparison to mind was the little remote device, armed with video cameras, that the cops sent into a silent apartment to show them if there was any danger lurking. If it had only made a cute noise or held conversations with the cops it would have been a perfect Dick touch.

And none of this was at all fantastic; it's just life in the present, as depicted on broadcast TV.

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Dating Beowulf part IV: summing up

Michael Drout got busy and then I got busy and so my link to his final discussion of the dating of Beowulf is only being posted now. Thanks, Michael.

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Mustaches of the nineteenth century

Friday, October 26, 2007

NU History seminar: Kozuskanich speaks on Constitutional research in the digital age

Our American history expert, Nathan Kozuskanich, is the first speaker in this year's History Department seminar series. He will be talking about digital archives and search engines and how they allow investigation in unprecedented depth into the meaning that the Constitution had in the era it was written. In particular, this kind of research has reshaped the debate on the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms). The seminar takes place Friday, Nov. 2, 2:30 pm in Room A224. All welcome, especially students interested in political science, American history, and modern methods of research.

Here's an abstract:

Originalism in a Digital Age: An Inquiry into the Right to Bear Arms

As lawyers and legal scholars have struggled to recover the often elusive original meaning of the U.S. Constitution, they have consistently relied on a narrow set of sources. But now, the digital age has made a wealth of historical and legal sources widely available. These comprehensive digital archives are now making it possible to recover the meanings of key constitutional phrases and ideas, like the incredibly contentious right to bear arms. Keyword searching makes it possible to effectively penetrate these voluminous archives and apply their contents to perplexing historical and legal problems. The ability to chart the use of certain words and phrases over time harnesses the power of computers in a way still largely unrealized in the humanities. While computer models and data analysis have transformed the natural and social sciences, lawyers and historians alike have yet to realize the full potential of computer research. This seminar presentation, in addition to its refutation of the Standard Model’s misconception of the right to bear arms as an individual right, seeks to offer a new methodology for those seeking to uncover and contextualize original intent.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

300 finally runs me down!

The movie 300 finally tracked me down in my own lair, in the form of a free showing sponsored by NU's Classics Club.

I have to say that it had a certain quality, a watchable quality, while it was on. Twenty-four hours later I'm not very pleased with what came across as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields with more body piercings.

The very big plus side was the way 300 put a graphic novel on a screen (not so big a screen in my case). It looked like there were no more than 4 colors used. Everything was visually simple and dramatic. I am sure the makers were aiming for this look and they have reason to be pleased with themselves.

On the other hand, I think I must be getting tired of stories that feature blood and muscle taking on sub-human enemies who do evil for incomprehensible reasons. Maybe it's because I recently saw Black Hawk Down for the first time? That was a good movie, too, but the wave upon wave of AK-47-wielding Somalis were no more convincing than Xerxes' boys (?).

On the third hand...I have to admit that though there was little connection between the movie and Herodotus' account of the Persian wars (except for the use of the words Sparta, Persia and Greece), 300 was closer to the spirit of H's History than one might guess.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Smelting in my backyard

After last Thursday's lecture on ancient metallurgy, at least one student was curious about why I had a used smelting furnace in my backyard. Here's an explanation (and if you are really curious you may find an earlier post in here somewhere--Sept. 2006?).

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The new Golden Mountain

Today's Washington Post has an article today called Leaving for the Chinese Dream. The thrust of the article is summed up in this paragraph:

For a growing number of the world's emigrants, China -- not the United States -- is the land where opportunities are endless, individual enterprise is rewarded and tolerance is universal.

And just to drive the point home, the star of the articles is Khaled Rasheed, from Iraq.

Who would have bet a nickel on this eventuality back in the days of the White Boned Demon and the Gang of Four?

Elsewhere on the news web I saw an article on musicians, dancers, and other artists from overseas just giving up on US tours because the visa system is just too burdensome. I hope to remember where I saw it! Ah, found it.

Important, important articles.

Image: A modern painting by Mian Situ, The Golden Mountain-Arriving San Francisco, 1865

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Friday, October 19, 2007

America's fraying alliance with Turkey

An op-ed in the LA Times lists all the reasons that US foreign policy pressures are unwelcome to Turkey, a long-time NATO ally and sort-of successful democracy. To be brief, on just about every issue that's important to Turkey, US positions are having a negative impact. It's a long list.

I have to wonder if you could make a list just as long for most Middle Eastern countries, and for many outside the Middle East.

Image: The Bosphorus at Istanbul

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dating Beowulf part III

Michael Drout finds a few moments to argue for late dates for Beowulf.

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Robot wars are here...

...and not long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

A roboticized anti-aircraft gun belonging to the South African National Defense Force went berserk and killed 9, injuring 14. And this is not the first such incident. For the whole story, see the aptly named Wired site, Danger Room: What's Next in National Security.

Not to mention what's next in national insecurity.

Thanks again to Talking Points Memo.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

1000 page views yesterday

According to Sitemeter, over 600 people came to this blog yesterday and looked at over 1000 pages among them.

Rather astonishing -- though as I've said before, and awful lot of them were looking for images that originated on other web sites.


Dating Beowulf part II

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Inventing Late Antiquity: a scholarly treat

Peter Brown has been over the last generation or so an extraordinarily influential historian of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. He is one of the chief figures, perhaps THE chief, in the invention of the notion of Late Antiquity. What that means is, he drew attention to a period formerly split between scholars interested in Classical Antiquity and those interested in the Early Church or the Early Middle Ages (or both), and argued that this was a period with a character of its own. It was a controversial idea then and still is now, but it's been a productive perspective, inspiring much work that would otherwise never have been done.

I used to work in Late Antiquity (as academics say; I didn't commute) and I've had the pleasure of hearing him speak both in a seminar, on saints and their historical significance, and at a conference, on sexual renunciation. He is perhaps the most amazing speaker I have ever heard -- every time the excitement of the ideas he's talked about has made my heart beat faster.

Brown, who is Oxford trained, was at Oxford last month to speak at the opening of an Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity, a kind of validation of his efforts that few of us can ever hope for. The talk's about where the name and concept of Late Antiquity came from.
If you're not familiar with the culture and setting of Oxford, it may be a slow start for you (he's talking to a home-town crowd), but if you've ever wondered about how intellectual viewpoints change, and what kind of resistance new ones face, have a look.

You may also find a laugh or two, and conclude that yes, famous academics are as eccentric as you might have thought.

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Dating Beowulf: a scholarly treat

This is not about "dating" in the usual sense, or Nekkid Beowulf or Nekkid Grendel's mother, but about the debate over the date that the Old English epic Beowulf was written. (A five hundred year range has been suggested, and none of the possibilities are completely without merit!)

Some years ago, Michael Drout, an eminent expert on Old English literature and J.R.R. Tolkien, found that even high school kids with only the vaguest notion of the story could get excited about this issue. (I think that this says something about Drout's style.) So, in what should probably be called the "Year of Beowulf," he is blogging at Wormtalk and Slugspeak about the various possibilities. Part one of Dating Beowulf is here.

And it is a scholarly treat. I hope it amuses others as well.

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Dictatorship watch

US telecommunications companies won't talk to Congress about illegal spying (which began before 9/11, BTW) because the White House objects.

It doesn't matter that "the White House" has been shown to be dishonest, contemptuous of the Constitution, and an unmitigated disaster.

Why doesn't it matter?

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Barbarism watch

From the "national security" advisor of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Thanks to Talking Points Memo.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007


Don't much go for these Internet fads, but I couldn't pass this one up. It's from A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, where Jonathan Jarrett explains the motive for his crime, and protests "No actually I have been really busy. Honest."

Yeah, me too.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Last Hurrah (1958)

Or "the last HOO-rah," as Spencer Tracy said it in the flick.

Long-time readers may remember that I've been reading, off and on, classic American political novels (suggestions welcome), and if possible following up with the movie.

One of the first books I read, which I seem not to have blogged about, was The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor. It's about an old-style Irish-American city politician (read "Boston" and a real mayor named Curley) who fights and loses his last campaign to a young nobody with a good-for-TV face and lots of establishment money behind him. And then he dies.

Skeffington (as the mayor is called in the book) knows that it's his last go, win or lose, and confides in his nephew about who he rose from the slums to be a champion of the old immigrant population. The reader enjoys the tour of the city and witnesses the obsolescent ward-heeling style of politics with the nephew, and has the additional pleasure of having it told in the best Irish English -- not music-hall brogues, but the real eloquence. Not as good as All the King's Men (what is?), but plenty good.

The movie is also a treat. Reasons? Directed by John Ford in a largely faithful manner, with Spencer Tracy as Skeffington. Tracy does it perfectly. With due respect to the rest of the cast, Tracy plays the role of Edwin O'Connor's prose and dialogue, and is up to the task.

Image: Tracy caricatured by Hirschfeld, the famous New Yorker magazine artist.

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Mass Arrest of Templars Day

Yes, indeed, this is the 700th anniversary of the mass arrest of the Knights Templar in the Kingdom of France.

Image: A modern rendition of the execution of the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, for recanting the lurid accusations he'd originally admitted to.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Beowulf: A new verse translation, by Seamus Heaney

I've been taking my own advice and polishing up my knowledge of Beowulf the poem in anticipation of Beowulf the movie. And as I began to read it I realized I probably have read no more than excerpts since I was an undergraduate taking a course in "Medieval Epic" (B and Roland in 10 weeks.)

This time I read Seamus Heaney's much-ballyhooed verse translation from 1999. And I find it no wonder that it was ballyhooed, it is wonderful.

One example to lure you to pick it up (NU's library has it, or will once I return it): Heaney, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, explains that he needed a way to "tune" his translation, and turned to "a familiar local voice," one which belonged to relatives he once called "big voiced Scullions," Irishmen who had weighty way of speaking that gave dignity to the simplest statements. Heaney used their speech as a model, beginning at the beginning, with the Old English word Hwaet!

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with "lo" and "hark" and "behold" and "attend" and -- more colloquially -- "listen" being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle "so" came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom "so" operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention.
I've heard that usage, too. With that insight, Heaney produced this:

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes ,
a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
as his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
and begin to pay tribute. That was one good king.

Wow! "That was one good king." I can almost hear one of my country neighbors saying that!

Here's Heaney's version of lines 2177-2189:

Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour;
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper
and warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
natural powers. He had been poorly regarded
for a long time, was taken by the Geats
for less than he was worth: and their lord too
had never much esteemed him in the mead-hall.
They firmly believed that he lacked force,
that the prince was a weakling; but presently
every affront to his deserving was reversed.
Fresh yet redolent of legendary antiquity. Fabulous, fabulous mastery of the English language. Out of Ireland -- again -- of course.

Image: A plate from a Swedish helmet showing warriors wearing boar-helmets, often mentioned in Beowulf. Look closely and you can see the last visible dog... From Beowulf in Cyberspace.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Trial by combat in a just world

I've just got to pull myself away from the Web today -- I keep finding all this good stuff.

Image: Trial by combat in a French treatise of the 1460s. (This image was used for the cover of my book Deeds of Arms.)

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Read this, historians

The end of democracy?

The Economist says the old Cold War language of East and West is not very useful in describing the Europe of today. Good point, especially the rejection of an ill-defined "West" category that I've long been suspicious of: for decades it was just too easy to draw the line of "Western civilization" from Periclean Athens through the Renaissance and whatever parts of 18th or 19th century culture you happened to like, ending of course with yourself.

Similarly, I applaud this column drawing attention to Karl Popper and his The Open Society and its Enemies.

But rejecting the term and concept of "democracy" because of the dishonesty of so many people who claim it? Might as well reject the term "civilization."

Anyway, when has the Economist in its very long history put "democracy" ahead of "free markets" in its list of desirable situations?


Mumps vaccination clinic at NU

Passing on a message from the North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit:

The health unit is holding one more Mumps Immunization Clinic for any staff, students or faculty of Canadore College or Nipissing University in North Bay on Tuesday, October 16, from 10 am to 2 pm. This clinic will be held in the faculty/staff lounge off the main cafeteria at the Canadore/Nipissing Main campus in North Bay. Only those who are student, staff or faculty at Canadore College or Nipissing University in North Bay are eligible to receive the vaccine and must bring their ID from the College or University.

Beowulf basics in preparation for the Beowulf movie

This is the year of naked and semi-naked heroes and villains in Hollywood movies of classic historical and legendary stories. First 300 on the Persian War, upcoming Beowulf, a big-budget version of the best Old English poem. Because these really are classic stories, there's been a lot of debate about them, even though we still only have trailers for Beowulf.

If by some chance you are a little vague (or maybe a lot vague) on the story and the background of Beowulf, an expert Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar, Michael Drout, has a FAQ on Beowulf.

Thanks to Scott Nokes at Unlocked Wordhoard (one of the coolest blog names in the universe; see his explanation) for drawing my attention to Drout's piece. (BTW, see Drout's blog for another really amazing blog name.)

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What did the Mary Rose tell us?

The BBC has an interesting story on what the recovery of the Mary Rose, an English warship that sunk in 1545, has told researchers in the past 25 years of investigation. One of the most interesting points: the sailors were taller and perhaps healthier than soldiers in World War I.

Image: the Mary Rose in drydock in 1985.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Peace in their time

Despite the various civil and foreign wars that affected England in the 13th century, Michael Prestwich in English Politics in the Thirteenth Century (in the NU library) says those contemporaries who considered it, and especially Henry III's reign as a time of peace had some justification:

Not one [domestic?] political opponent of the crown was executed during the thirteenth century, a record not to be achieved again until the 19th century.

How can this success be explained? It was very important that men thought it was possible to achieve worthwhile ends by political rather than military ends...

The achievements were not the work of individuals alone: for all the imprecision of the concept, full credit must go to the community of the realm.

Image: Henry III's coronation.


Monday, October 08, 2007

Richest Britons return -- now in book form

For quite a while -- since 1989, in fact -- the Times of London has published a Rich List which includes the richest 1,ooo people who live and work (if that's the word) in the UK. I have very little interest in that list. In 2000, however, the devisors of the Rich List tried to estimate the wealth of the richest 200 Britons since 1066. No easy matter, and maybe not possible at all! But they gave it a good try, not being satisfied with merely coming up with a rough monetary estimate of how much each person had, and adjusting for inflation. That would have been laughably useless. Rather, they estimated the total wealth of England or Britain, depending on what century they were working on, and then estimated how much of that national wealth each really rich person had. Finally they assigned them a total wealth in pounds sterling which would give them that share of Britain's total wealth now -- or, rather, in 2000.

The web version of this exercise is long gone, but now news comes that a revised book version will be out on October 15.

I can't tell whether you'll enjoy the book, but I'm going to shell out for it. The list is a great combination of people you've never heard of (like James Craggs, #19, died 1721, who made the equivalent of 21 billion pounds on army clothing contracts) and the much more famous (like Eleanor of Aquitaine). Of those I know, it really is remarkable how many died violently.

I guess that's less surprising when you reflect on how few of these people led productive lives, as opposed to being well-connected grafters or out and out plunderers. The first two on the list were among the Norman conquerors.

The murder of Thomas Becket (#13) as visualized in the mid-14th century.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Peanuts for public health saves babies in the poorest countries

Yesterday the Globe and Mail ran a piece by Stephanie Nolan on successful measures to fight infant mortality; she focused on Malawi, where a few simple measures costing about as much as Canadian undergraduates pay for lunch has saved many lives:

The first page of Alfred Malunga's fat village register is taken up by a single family. Mother, father, five children, the last a baby girl named Molly. A red cross has been inked in beside her name.

“I use that sign when someone passes away,” explained Mr. Malunga, the village health worker who maintains the register, two volumes long and 12 centimetres high. “That child died of malaria.”

But turn the page. And the next. There are no more red crosses for 10 pages. Molly is the only child in her village to have died in the past six months.

This is a startling thing in Malawi, one of the poorest nations in the world, chronically short of food and with less than $10 a person spent on health care each year.

This kind of good news is becoming more common:

The application of a handful of simple, low-cost measures, from giving families $2 mosquito nets to encouraging breastfeeding, is spurring a sharp decline in child deaths around the world.

Malawi also pays village health workers to administer these kinds of programs, which is more than some other countries that are equally or less poor do. Alfred Malunga makes the princely sum of $36 a month.

A year ago I had a couple of posts (1) (2) on effective public health measures as a sign and product of true historical progress -- let me be blunt, moral progress.

Reject any analysis of world history that does not dedicate serious thought to this issue. And read the article. Oh, Canadians: your taxes are making a significant contribution to this effor

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Another perspective on old legal codes and charters

Students who have heard two lectures from me that discussed the doubts that surround the meaning of the Code of Hammurabi, which apparently was never cited by working judges in the Old Babylonian era -- might be interested in a view of old legal documents, early medieval this time, put forward in the blog A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Yes, this is mainly a history blog, but I love space and astronomy too, and I am posting this to let you know that there is a wonderful site called Astronomy Picture of the Day. We have NASA to thank for it.

Today's awesome shot is of the pattern made in the sky by taking pictures of the sun at the same time of day over the course of a year. This example of the pattern, called an analemma, was devised by Turkish astronomers in Side over 2005-6, and includes the total eclipse of March 29, 2006.



Today is the 50th anniversary of the launching of the first artificial Earth satellite, the Soviet Sputnik. There is a reasonably thoughtful article on Sputnik and the Space Age in the Washington Post, but I think it rather underestimates the longer-term impact, presuming, of course, that there is a longer term for humanity.

Next up, on October 13th: the 700th anniversary of the arrest of the Templars!

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Monday, October 01, 2007

MMP referendum

In recent years there has been a lot of interest in Canada in electoral reform, in replacing the ancient "First Past the Post" (FPTP) system with another that would more proportionally represent the preferences of the electorate.

Right now if you are an Ontario voter you cast the local candidate in your constituency; if a plurality of your neighbors agree with you, your candidate goes to the legislature. If your candidate's party also wins a plurality of seats, then you've helped elect the next provincial government. If not, not. Your vote, as some people say, is "wasted." In my area, you can vote for the NDP till the cows come home, or well after, and you won't get a local MPP who suits you. And in fact, it would be possible for a party with a significant percentage of the vote to gain no seats in the legislature. More importantly, perhaps, with three major parties, it's not unusual for one of them to win a majority of seats even though a majority of voters did not vote for that party.

An Ontario Citizen's Assembly proposed that the province adopt a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system, used in a number of places around the world. As an Ontario voter, you cast one ballot for a local candidate, and the candidate with the plurality wins, as before. However, you also get a second ballot where you vote for a party, and these votes are used to elect a certain number of extra legislators. These seats are distributed to all parties that got more than 3% of the vote to bring the number of total seats per party more-or-less in line with the proportion of the total vote they received. That means a relatively small party with a number of votes in every constituency, like the Greens, might actually win some seats.

I consider this a very important issue, and I think that many people, if the case is made to them, agree. I think it comes down to whether you think it's very desirable for there to be majority governments, or whether you prefer minority governments. If the first, and you think the present system is more likely to produce decisive majority governments, then you'll want to stop MMP in its tracks; if the second, and you are tired of minorities electing majority governments with little need to compromise, then this is perhaps your best chance to get rid of FPTP.

In either case, if you are an Ontario voter, get out and vote your judgment. The referendum is taking place in conjunction with the provincial election on October 10.

If you want more information, go to the Web. Or, if you are near North Bay, there will be an information session at Nipissing University on Tuesday, October 2. Dr. David Tabachnick, professor of Political Science at Nipissing University, will be giving a special presentation about electoral reform at 7 p.m. at the university in the Weaver Auditorium (B200).

Update: For more discussion, see Andrew Coyne's column from the National Post. He's pro-MMP, but the commenters are on both sides and in their arguments demonstrate that people seldom completely agree on basics: like what a vote represents, and what constitutes political representation. Thanks to the Vanity Press for leading me to this.

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An op-ed to examine, and the issue of stupidity

Students in my world history class were asking for help with assignment #1 today, and one piece of advice I gave was that they might learn a lesson in focus by looking at an opinion piece on the editorial page of a major newspaper. Op-eds usually are restricted to 800 words, and our first assignment's meant to have no more than 750. You can't say much in that length. I thought looking at a pro at work might be helpful. Or more than one.

Here's a possibility. Thomas Friedman, a well-known columnist for the New York Times wrote today that 9/11 has made America stupid, isolated and increasingly, backward. A key passage reads:

Look at our infrastructure. It’s not just the bridge that fell in my hometown, Minneapolis. Fly from Zurich’s ultramodern airport to La Guardia’s dump. It is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones. I still can’t get uninterrupted cellphone service between my home in Bethesda and my office in D.C. But I recently bought a pocket cellphone at the Beijing airport and immediately called my wife in Bethesda — crystal clear.

I just attended the China clean car conference, where Chinese automakers were boasting that their 2008 cars will meet “Euro 4” — European Union — emissions standards. We used to be the gold standard. We aren’t anymore. Last July, Microsoft, fed up with American restrictions on importing brain talent, opened its newest software development center in Vancouver. That’s in Canada, folks. If Disney World can remain an open, welcoming place, with increased but invisible security, why can’t America?

We can’t afford to keep being this stupid! We have got to get our groove back. We need a president who will unite us around a common purpose, not a common enemy.
Friedman's not making a rigorous argument (see below) but he packs a lot of supporting material for his thesis into about 790 words.

For what it's worth, I disagree that stupidity is the only problem afflicting the USA. See the Washington Post column by Jim Rokakis, where he explains how predatory lenders are wrecking American towns, and how they have got away with it, and a piece on the growing number of American security guards while the USA loses productive jobs. (Cited from the Group News Blog because I couldn't find the original article at Too Much.)

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