Saturday, October 31, 2009

A bit of Iraqi reality leaks through

Of course it comes from the admirable Inside Iraq:

October 30, 2009
Dumb and Dumber

There are more than 200 checkpoints in Baghdad; some of these checkpoints are manned by policemen, some by Iraqi army and some by both. Many of these checkpoints are equipped with explosive detectors that were supposed to enable the Iraqi forces to stop transporting explosives around the city or basically car bombs.

Most of these checkpoints are located at entry points to bridges and neighborhoods. Other checkpoints are on the main roads of Baghdad to the limit that the city is literally suffocating because of these checkpoints and the resulted traffic jam.

Before starting telling you what happens in most of the checkpoints you should know about the “explosives detectors”. The device is carried by security man who stops your car and walk beside it carrying the device. The device’s pointer changes its direction when passed by a car that supposedly carries explosives.

But the main flaw it points also if there is any chemical material like detergents or even medicine.

What happens in these checkpoints and how they are distributed in the city?!

First Scenario:

You drive into the checkpoint, and the explosives detector does not point to your car, Iraqi security orders you to drive and continue your magical trip through the elegant safe capital’s roads.

Second Scenario:

The detector points at your car, the security men orders you to drive into searching area, if there is one sometimes simply stop you in mid of the street, to search your car. The soldier responsible for searching asks the dumb and dumber questions:

- Where are you coming from and where are you going?

- Do you carry weapons?

If you answered with a wide smile, coming from X neighborhood and going to Y neighborhood and no I don’t carry weapons, you probably would leave without further questions or being searched.

Third Scenario

Detectors point at your car, you go to search, you answer the dumb and dumber two questions with a wide smile but yet the soldier insists to search your car. The search will be the following: open the trunk, soldiers will order you and that’s it.

Fourth Scenario

Your friend is a soldier or you have a badge that says you are a member of Iraqi security forces, no need to worry then, because every day we see tens of them passing all Baghdad’s checkpoints without being searched.

And till now, the government and the Iraqi forces are still insisting on depending on these checkpoints as the main tactic to control the apparently unstoppable attacks of car bombs.

I wonder, what did the American military or NATO trained the new Iraqi forces?

Image: Third scenario.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

An opinion on the Afghan war

I found this here, in comments:

Paul McGeough of the Sydney Morning Herald:

"McChrystal, I fear, has arrived too late – for Afghanistan and for Washington. He is asking for a huge act of faith on two fronts – first, by the international community; and second by the Afghan people. But after almost a decade of these constituencies having their trust abused, the miracle promised by McChrystal is a mirage, an ephemeral outcome that even with inevitable, subsequent requests for thousands more troops and billions more in reconstruction dollars likely will not eventuate. The general wants a blank cheque for a jalopy on which he offers no warranty."

Then there is this (from Thomas Ricks' main post):

Dave Lamborn emphasized that we can't help give the Afghans stability unless we have better continuity between American units deployed there:

"We have been in Afghanistan for 8 years now, but ... information is not being captured and passed along for each locality. In many cases each commander has to start from scratch, which is not only inefficient, but is also downright counterproductive. The locals get sick of having a new guy researching his backyard every year, he gets sick of having to adapt to a brand new personality, and he gets sick of seeing the new rookie commander kill innocent civilians or make other rookie mistakes. So it is natural that so many Afghans are currently ripe for the political plucking of the Taliban or Mujahadeeb."

Scary, yes?

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Another Reality: the Forgotten World

This post at English Russia is typical of much of the most striking material at that photo-blog, which covers 1/6 of the Earth's surface.

Have a look.
It might prove to be a philosophical moment. It certainly is a philosophical title.

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Brad DeLong provides an approach to the last 20 years of world history

He calls it: Six Issues for a Panel... and it's US-centric, but worth some thought:

Twenty years ago--with the end of the Cold War--American policy got dammed up:

  • It was clear we needed to do something to balance the long-term social-insurance spending promises both parties were making with the long-term tax base, and we haven't.

  • It was clear--first for national-security and domestic-congestion reasons, and then for global-warming reasons as well--that we needed to start imposing Pigovian taxes on coal and oil-driven energy use, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that we needed to reform America's health care financing system, and we haven't.

  • It was clear that America, as the globe's sole hyperpower, had a unique opportunity to build a world in which we could live very comfortably and peacefully once we were no longer a hyperpower or even a superpower but instead only one (if we are lucky) of several great powers--and we haven't.

To this in the past three years we have added:

  • A recognition that the "Greenspanist" bet--deregulate finance, rely on financial company shareholders via corporate control to limit moral hazard, and bet that the Federal Reserve can lean up after any elephants that stampede through--was wrong. We need to restructure financial regulation--and we haven't.

  • A recognition that the "central problem of macroeconomics" has not in fact been solved. We need to solve it--both in the short run of recovery from this recession, and in the long run of creating a world that is net, whether through global imbalances or other factors, as vulnerable to episodes like this as our world turns out to be.

About these six issues, two questions:

  • Which of these six policy issues will--as many of them have been doing--continue to drift, and what damage will drifting do?

  • Which of these six policy issues will the Obama administration actually be able to address--and what will be the consequences for the world of how it addresses them?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary

From the World Wide Words e-mail list. (The associated website is here).

Review: Historical Thesaurus of the OED
Lexicographers know from historical example and the nature of the
job that they're in for a long haul. Samuel Johnson thought his
dictionary project would take three years, but even with the help
of his amanuenses it needed nine. James Murray worked on what was
then called the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles for
36 years, his labours being terminated only by death. Development
of the Historical Thesaurus began in 1967. Its current director,
Christian Kay, and another editor, Irené Wotherspoon, both joined
as research assistants two years later and so each has completed 40
years of unending slog.

The grand plan was to create a unique work of scholarship and that
is what it is - there's nothing like it in any other language. Most
thesauruses basically take a snapshot of the language as it is when
it is compiled (lexicographers call this a synchronic view). Its
editors will include literary or archaic terms and colloquial or
slang expressions that may one day become part of the standard
language, but essentially they're cataloguing a slice across one
moment in time. The Historical Thesaurus takes the other possible
stance: recording the words English has used for concepts across
the whole history of the language - a diachronic view.

Take "money" for example (a word much in our minds at the moment).
The entry fills a column and tells us that the earliest word for
the concept - in Old English - was "mynet", with "money" itself
turning up around 1290; a glance down the chronological list throws
up "gelt" (first recorded around 1529), "lour" (in use from 1567
on), "mint-sauce" (from 1812), and a host of others from the past
two centuries that we may recognise from our reading even if we
don't use them ourselves: "oof", "lettuce", "ackers", "bread",
"spondulicks", "moolah", "lolly", "loot", and "dosh". All these are
tagged with the date of their first known appearance and - if it
has - the date when it went out of use again.

This is treasure-trove, which careful writers can mine for nuggets
of vocabulary. There's no excuse any more for anachronisms. If
you're creating an historical novel or film or adapting a classic
for television, you can check in this monumental agglomeration if -
for example - your character might have called money "dough" in
1800 (no, because it's first recorded in 1851) or what might have
been a suitable slang term for it in 1700 ("spankers", "cole" and
"rhino" are all possibilities).

The source of this knowledge, as the title shows, is the Oxford
English Dictionary. The compilers of the Historical Thesaurus took
every word in the OED and placed it within a framework of meaning
that they constructed, a monumental task that makes one's mind
reel, as does the thought of creating the framework itself.

Most thesauruses today use the classification scheme invented by
Peter Roget in 1852, but the compilers of the Historical Thesaurus
realised that this wouldn't be comprehensive enough and generated
their own. All knowledge is divided into three broad families: the
external world, the mental world, and the social world, numbered
from 01 to 03. These families are progressively subdivided into
more and more detailed classes. The class 03.10 is work, 03.10.13
is trade and commerce and is money. The classification
doesn't end there - is currency,
is coins and is foreign coins. This last entry
has hundreds of historical terms organised by country, such as the
Dutch stiver and the American sharpshin. To look up the index (the
second, larger, volume of the two-volume work), is to experience a
mass of numbers dancing before the eyes like every lottery draw of
all time rolled into one.

It's an extraordinary work. The pity is that it's so expensive that
only libraries, big institutions and a few well-heeled individuals
can afford it.

[Christian Kay, Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels and Irené Wotherspoon
[eds], The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary,
Oxford University Press, 22 October 2009; hardback, two volumes in
slipcase; ISBN-13:978-0-19-920899-9; ISBN-10:0-19-920899-9; the UK
publisher's price is £250 until January 2010, thereafter £275.]

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More on the war

Yes, there's a war on -- more than one!

Juan Cole at his most optimistic has an article in Salon,
Obama's foreign policy report card.

Matthew Hoh, an American official and ex-Marine with extensive experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, resigns. Why? The war in Afghanistan makes no sense. See
his letter of resignation and the Washington Post article describing his background.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

From Phil Paine's reading list: the The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea meets Google Earth

Here is Phil's whole entry:

18180. [2] (Anon. 1st Century AD) The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean by a Merchant of the First Century [translated from the Greek and annotated by Wilfred H. Schoff]

I first read this in 1989, when I became fascinated by ancient India. Along with the work of Megasthenes, it gave me a vivid picture of the travel, commerce, and cultural connections between India and the Mediterranean world in antiquity, and this in turn awakened me to my present attitudes toward the nature and origins of democracy. The Periplus differs from most other documents from the era in that it wasn't written by an aristocrat or a intellectual. It's a set of sailing instructions and observations on products for sale and purchase in the Indian Ocean and its adjacent gulfs, written by an Alexandrian merchant sea captain. His name is unknown. But he was a keen observer, with an orderly mind. The book was gathering dust in the Shastri Indo-Canadian Collection of the University of Toronto Library, when I first looked at it — few people were interested in such things then.

Now it's an altogether different story. There is a plethora of books on the Indian Ocean trade of antiquity, and the Periplus is a standard resource for historians. Something has changed for me, as well. Now, I'm reading it with Google Earth in front of me, as I turn every page. The remarkable thing is that I can follow the Periplus like a soaring eagle, from landmark to landmark. All the names have changed, though some survive in distorted form, in modern languages. But the author had certainly been to the places he described. Where he says there's a cliff or a mountain or a reef, there it is, for me to see with my own eyes. With intense pleasure, I followed the text, while zooming in and out along the whole coast of the Red Sea, East Africa, Arabia, the Persian Gulf, the Makran coast, Sindh, the Rann of Kutch, the Malabar coast, the magical land of Taprobane (Sri Lanka).....

Back in 1989, I wouldn't have dared to predict that such god-like powers would be available to me in my lifetime.

You can make a real contribution to the exploration of the universe

Monday, October 26, 2009

An answer to a Charny Question

Some of you readers know quite a bit about Charny and his questions but let me explain to the rest why this little discovery is a thrill for me.

Geoffroi de Charny was a prominent French knight in the 1350s who wrote a book of chivalry and a series of questions on the law of arms. The questions were meant to be presented to the French chivalric Order of the Star, who were supposed to answer these puzzles of military law, concerning plunder, ransoms, what was honorable behavior on the battlefield, etc.. We don't know if this was ever done, and we have no answers to any of the questions. Except...

There is a Belgian edition of Charny's questions, and in it there is a footnote which gives an answer to one of those questions, which the editor, Rossbach, found in the Madrid manuscript of the questions, tucked away in the margin. Who put it there and when is another of those great unanswered historical questions. Here are my translations of the question and the Madrid marginal answer.
Charny says: and if the men at arms mentioned above [who went out from the city they were garrisoning to attack the enemy without their captain's permission] gain much and lose nothing, and those [men at arms] in the city who remained to guard it demand a share, and those who rode out say no. Many good arguments are made on either side. How will it be judged by the law of arms?

Answer: those in the city who remained behind don't get anything at all if the agreement before was not that all should be en butin [in the booty for shares], but this is good law and reason.
So if there wasn't a specific agreement about sharing the booty, too bad Charlie!

Image: a marginal note by Isaac Newton in a printed book, now owned by Colorado State University.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A very important point in my understanding of religion and its history

Over there at MEDIEV-L, we were discussing Islam, and someone mentioned Karen Armstrong, the prominent writer on religious issues. This clause was a side remark in a long argument:

...the question is not who armstrong thinks is a "real representative" of a religion that is not hers ...
And that impelled me to say this:
And for me that opens up another question: even if the religion is yours, do you get to say who is the real representative of that religion? You may think you are an X, and that all Xs believe such and such, and Y is the best representative that belief or practice, but somebody else somewhere in time and space has an equally strong contrary belief about what Xs say and do and believe, with plenty of evidence to back themselves up. If we are talking as historians and scholars, both persons' claims are ahistorical. What would be objectively verifiable is that there are certain tendencies and disagreements within religion X, and that any definition of religion X includes and excludes people who may or may not think of themselves as X.
Reader, if you care about what I have learned in decades of historical studies, this is one of the most important things.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Most Holy War: the Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom, by Mark Gregory Pegg

My review of this book is at The Michigan War Studies Review, specifically here.

Here's an excerpt:
A sense of the attractions of this book, as opposed to the several others available on the subject, may be gained from its last paragraph:

God's homicidal pleasure lasted another eighteen years. Mountaintop castles were assaulted. Castrum after castrum was razed to the ground. Young viscounts died of heartache. Counts were humiliated. Toulouse was besieged. Corpses fouled rivers. Great long meandering armies traipsed every summer from the Rhône to the Garonne. Vultures and ravens grew plump. Legates cried out for vengeance. Men died hearing Veni Creator Spiritus. Wives and little girls worked catapults. Great cats assaulted battlements. Skulls were crushed. Murder was a path to redemption. Vines and fields were devastated. A pregnant girl was mocked. Good men became heretics. A young count surrendered to a boy king. Inquisitors scoured the countryside. Heretics dangled from walnut trees. Very few who began the war lasted to the end. The world was changed forever (191)
This is not only a good sample of Pegg's hard-hitting, vivid, and economical style, but a reasonable summary of the book...

This might give the impression that A Most Holy War is an opinionated, emotional tirade, but such is not the case. Certainly there are opinions here, strongly presented, on all manner of events, movements, and developments. But Pegg, concerned to reveal the minds, emotions, and motives of his subjects, skillfully and gracefully uses quotations to give the voices of historical figures--clerics, counts, chroniclers, and troubadours--precedence over his own.

Readers unacquainted with Pegg's scholarship may be surprised by his presentation of the heresy Innocent III was trying to extirpate. In a previous book[1] and several articles and reviews, he has attacked a consensus going right back to the Middle Ages--that the heretics of the South of France, usually called "Cathars" or, earlier, "Albigensians," constituted a dualist counter-church. Its doctrines were descended from those of the Manichaeans, Bogomils, and Paulicians of Christian antiquity, and its growth owed much to missionaries from the Eastern Mediterranean beginning in the eleventh century. Pegg, on the other hand, believes this interpretation depends more on presuppositions of medieval heresy hunters (long since adopted by modern scholars) than on contemporary evidence. Theologians of the Middle Ages tended to see all disbelief as a single subversive plot against the truth. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, ecclesiastical authorities became increasingly obsessed with any deviation from "orthodox" teachings and rituals, both of which were being more strictly defined and enforced. In actual fact, Pegg argues, there were no Cathars or Albigensians till activist monks, bishops, and popes detected and named them....

Whether or not that position ultimately survives criticism, Pegg at least clearly explains his view of the nature of southern French deviance, emphasizing that the heretical leaders were commonly designated "good man" or "good woman," a form of address appropriate to just about any respectable person at the time. Similarly, he contends that the ritual greetings of heretical "believers" to their supposed leaders were mannerly gestures with no particular religious content. In the South, the exchange of courtesies, essential to the peace of a fragmented society, had its own flavor and terminology, and unsympathetic outsiders put a harsh interpretation on them. The efforts of these outsiders to control and reform southern French behavior according to their own standards, according to Pegg, had a strong effect on the culture of the church hierarchy and the theory and practice of crusade. Indeed, "the Albigensian Crusade is one of the great pivotal moments in world history .... The crusade ushered genocide into the West, changing forever what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be like Christ" (xiv). This is Pegg's sincere justification for considering his book's subject to be a world-historical "pivotal moment."

Remarkably, this book's less than 200 pages of main text includes far more than a critique of heresiology and descriptions of the religious views of various major actors. It also outlines the politics and military activities of a more than twenty-year period through brief but vivid vignettes that well convey the flavor of original source material[.]

If the book has a flaw, it is its failure to draw sufficient connections between the Albigensian Crusade and the general phenomenon of crusading. Readers conversant with the career of Innocent III and his desire to mobilize all of Christendom against its various enemies might well wonder why a crusade in the South of France was so crucial a prelude to later genocide. It would not have taken more than a few paragraphs to make a stronger and clearer connection between the preaching of Gregory VII and Urban II against emperors and Turks, and Innocent's determination to rally Christendom to fight the whole disobedient world, whether Markward of Anweiler or Raimon of Toulouse or the Livs in the Gulf of Riga. The case for the uniqueness of the Albigensian Crusade is not made as strongly as it might have been.

Nonetheless, Pegg has succeeded in writing a stirring and memorable treatment of an event easily overlooked because it does not fit neatly into conventional narrative histories based on national boundaries and categories.

[1] The Corruption of Angels: The Great Inquisition of 1245-1246 (Princeton: Princeton U Pr, 2001)

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Le Siècle de Libanios : littérature, culture et société du IVe siècle après J.-C. dans l'Orient méditerranéen

On the off chance one of my readers has both a reading command of French and an interest in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of the late 4th century AD, I include this link. Have fun, o lucky reader.

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Opportunity on Mars

If we were a sensible species, we'd be building new countries in the sky instead of blowing up the ones we already have.

Image: See APoD for an explanation of the pic and the mission (not a euphemism for "war" in this case).

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I would love to hear some informed commentary on this article from Reuters and The Independent:
Modern man 'a wimp', says anthropologist

Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 metres record holder Usain Bolt in modern conditions.

Some Tutsi men in Rwanda exceeded the current world high jump record of 2.45 meters during initiation ceremonies in which they had to jump at least their own height to progress to manhood.

Any Neanderthal woman could have beaten former bodybuilder and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle.

These and other eye-catching claims are detailed in a book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister entitled "Manthropology" and provocatively sub-titled "The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male."

McAllister sets out his stall in the opening sentence of the prologue.

"If you're reading this then you - or the male you have bought it for - are the worst man in history...."


Manthropology abounds with other examples:

* Roman legions completed more than one-and-a-half marathons a day carrying more than half their body weight in equipment.

* Athens employed 30,000 rowers who could all exceed the achievements of modern oarsmen.

* Australian aboriginals threw a hardwood spear 110 meters or more (the current world javelin record is 98.48).

McAllister said it was difficult to equate the ancient spear with the modern javelin but added: "Given other evidence of Aboriginal man's superb athleticism you'd have to wonder whether they couldn't have taken out every modern javelin event they entered."

Why the decline?

"We are so inactive these days and have been since the industrial revolution really kicked into gear," McAllister replied. "These people were much more robust than we were.

"We don't see that because we convert to what things were like about 30 years ago. There's been such a stark improvement in times, technique has improved out of sight, times and heights have all improved vastly since then but if you go back further it's a different story.

"At the start of the industrial revolution there are statistics about how much harder people worked then.

"The human body is very plastic and it responds to stress. We have lost 40 percent of the shafts of our long bones because we have much less of a muscular load placed upon them these days.

"We are simply not exposed to the same loads or challenges that people were in the ancient past and even in the recent past so our bodies haven't developed. Even the level of training that we do, our elite athletes, doesn't come close to replicating that.

"We wouldn't want to go back to the brutality of those days but there are some things we would do well to profit from."
Well, he sure knows how to get interviews and onto talkshows. But such interviews aren't necessarily the whole story. This may make more or less sense when spelled out in detail. It sounds oversimplified to me. Were early factory workers "inactive?" More likely worn out by too much repetitive, body-destructive work.

Image: Women making artillery shells in Quebec in World War II. Active or inactive?

Has there been, in his theory, a decline in womankind?

Update: In addition to the substantial comments below, Will McLean has weighed in on this. Indeed, see his recent blog entries for other good material.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

King Hrothgar's hall?

Is there anything to this story from the Copenhagen Post?

Could a large mud building unearthed in Lejre have been a cult place or beer hall of the ancient Viking kings?

The hall, 48 metres long and seven metres across, overlooks the site of a Viking palace unearthed in 1986 in what is an historic area of Denmark.

‘We are sure we have found a royal building of some sort,’ said Tom Christensen, curator of Roskilde Museum at the time. ‘The odd thing about the site is that it is littered with bits and pieces of exquisite golden jewellery, glass and bronze broaches, high quality artifacts, such as drinking glasses and ceramics, which all seem to have been deliberately smashed in some ritual.’

‘There is also a huge pile of cooking stones from primitive ovens. This was obviously a place frequented by the upper classes of the Iron Age. Maybe it was some sort of beer hall or a sacred site where cult or religious activities were carried out. The building’s post holes are over a metre deep, so it must have been an impressive construction,’ said Christensen.


Set in the period of the Germanic migrations in the fourth to seventh centuries, the poem [Beowulf] places the Scylding King Hrothgar’s Hall, Hereot, at Lejre, while Saxo Grammaticus, a 13th century chronicler who compiled a history of both legendary and historical Danish kings, also identified Lejre as an ancient royal seat.

Many modern Beowulf scholars identify Hereot with Lejre and, with the discovery of the hall, Danish archaeologists believed they had finally found the site. ‘The date of the cult place fits perfectly with the era of the Scyldings,’ Christensen said.

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a major upturned boat-shaped Viking longhouse, but only the foundations of the huge hall and outhouses remained as the original construction had been of wood. The 50-metre-long, 10-metre-high longhouse was twice the size of any similar hall discovered in Denmark, leading archaeologists to believe they had stumbled on a royal palace from the time of the sagas.

The dimensions of the hall were calculated from 200 posthole marks on the ground from the huge oak beams that supported the walls and roof. There were signs on the site of earlier constructions, dams, windmills and other buildings including a bronze foundry, workshops and outlining fencing, underlining the importance of the Lejre settlement.

A museum now occupies a plot of land near the site. The English web address for the Lejre Museum is

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Chunkey --- another elite sport, from pre-conquest North America

Included in my scholarly interests is the history of chivalric sports, which has made me sensitive to the influence that other elite sports and festivals have had. So I was really interested to read about the sport of "chunkey" as practiced by the Cahokia culture of North America during what we call the Middle Ages. Here are some excerpts from the on-line version of Archaeology.

The chief standing at the summit of the black, packed-earth pyramid raises his arms. In the grand plaza below, a deafening shout erupts from 1,000 gathered souls. Then the crowd divides in two, and both groups run across the plaza, shrieking wildly. Hundreds of spears fly through the air toward a small rolling stone disk. Throngs of cheering spectators gather along the sidelines and root for the two teams as they play chunkey, a game that had a significant role in organizing social and political life at Cahokia, the great prehistoric city that arose around A.D. 1050 near present-day St. Louis, Missouri.


Many, possibly most, Midwestern, Southern, and Plains Indians were in one way or another entangled in a history that began at Cahokia. The evidence is often indirect, but it is compelling, and points toward a singular history-changing moment 1,000 years ago, when social life, political organization, religion, art, and culture were all utterly transformed in the middle of the Mississippi River Valley. At the epicenter of events was a radical new kind of social and political experiment: a planned capital city. Someone--or some governing body--designed one from scratch at Cahokia. The leaders superimposed a new plan directly over an old village and supervised the construction of great earthen pyramids, open plazas, and huge wooden buildings. Then they gained control over people living throughout the region, an unprecedented move in the history of ancient America north of Mexico.

A new culture developed at the city, perhaps inspired by Mesoamerican models. The people of Cahokia practiced human sacrifice, incorporated obelisk-like timber posts into their worship, told stories of superhuman men and women, used Mesoamerican-style flint daggers, and understood the cosmos in ways similar to Mesoamerican notions. They then spread this new way of life, which included intensified maize agriculture, across the Midwest and into the South and Plains with a religious fervor. Archaeologists refer to the culture as Mississippian, after the river that flows by many of its known sites.

One of the primary vehicles for the growth of this new civilization may have been Cahokian envoys who carried chunkey stones in one hand and war clubs in the other as they ventured into the hinterlands with the purpose of making peace or political alliances. These emissaries seem to have established and enforced a region-wide peace of sorts, a veritable Pax Cahokiana, an important element of which may have been the game of chunkey.

Timothy R. Pauketat is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

I have been to the Cahokia site, and not only are there some surviving Cahokian "ziggurats" made of earth, but a great modern museum.

Image: Chunkey player.

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Star-forming region Sharpless 171

For a bigger view, click on the pic, or here. Thanks to NASA and Astronomy Picture of the Day.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

What's happening in Pakistan?

The Independent out of the UK has the best connected account I have seen.
Note this passage:

Ordinary Pakistanis have been left bewildered [by recent terrorist attacks], unable still to believe that the danger comes from within the country.

"Only God knows where such people come from because I know that Muslims cannot kill other Muslims," said Mohammad Yousaf, a 55-year-old, who runs a tea shop near one of the police training schools in Lahore and spent several hours hiding instead his store Thursday as gunfire and explosions engulfed the area.

Image: Outside Army HQ after the attack on it this month.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Jokes Iraqis tell each other in traffic jams

From the McClatchy-affiliated blog written by Iraqi journalists, Inside Iraq.
Image: Baghdad traffic jam, 2008.

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Review of The Medieval Cook by Henisch

From TMR, a great source for timely reviews:

Henisch, Bridget. The Medieval Cook. Woodbridge, Suffolk:
Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 245. $47.95. ISBN: 9781843834380.

Reviewed by Gina L. Greco
Portland State University

Studies of cookery in the Middle Ages, whether scholarly or popular,
have focused on the production and procurement of ingredients, the
preparation and presentation of dishes, and the organization and
conventions of meals. The Medieval Cook examines these same
topics from the perspective of the different women and men in the
kitchen--peasant housewives, street stall vendors, hired caterers and
master chefs. The result is an accessible overview of medieval
culinary practice that will entertain and inform the general public.

Chapter 1, "The Cook in Context," offers an impressionistic survey of
positive and negative attitudes towards cooks and their craft, culled
from a rich variety of sources including Latin exercise books, royal
account books, biblical commentary, Arthurian romance, plays, and
children's games, supported with careful secondary research. The next
two chapters, "The Cottage Cook" and "Fast Food and Fine Catering,"
present different types of amateur and professional cooks, the tasks
they performed, materials they used, and challenges they encountered.
Chapters 4 and 5 explore the diverse expectations and economic
realities cooks addressed, whether preparing meals for the immediate
household in "The Comforts of Home," or entertaining guests on a
lavish scale in "The Staging of a Feast." Throughout these chapters
Henisch continues to draw from an assortment of historical, literary,
and scholarly documents to illustrate her vignettes. The final
chapter, "On the Edge: the Cook in Art," canvasses visual
representations of cooks and their tools uncovered in the margins of
manuscripts, woodcuts, and sculpture. Notes are followed by a Select
Bibliography, Selection of Medieval Recipes, Suggestions for Further
Reading, and an Index.

Each chapter is divided into many short sections, one to seven pages
in length, the majority under four pages. These units, covering such
varied topics as "Hospitality," "Cook and Physician," "Methods and
Equipment," "Eggs," "Street Snacks," "Pie Makers," "Provisioning,"
"Crisis Control," "Economy and Discipline," and "Hell's Kitchen,"
offer the reader savory tidbits and easy entry into the world of the
medieval kitchen. Chapter titles, however, do not give adequate clues
to the content, and readers looking for a discussion of a particular
topic will regret that the table of contents does not outline these
section titles. While an adept user of the Index can navigate the
material, that task would have been greatly facilitated by a list. Of
course, these decisions are often based on a press's editorial
practice, and it is probably unfair to expect such detail in a volume
not intended as a reference work.

Henisch's focus on the cook as both historical person and fictional
character allows her to paint engaging, anecdote-rich sketches
appropriate for a book aimed at a general audience. However, this
organizational choice does occasion a certain amount of duplication
since in each different context--that of the home cook, the
professional cook, the family meal, the feast--many of the same topics
are by necessity revisited. In some cases, identical textual examples
and citations are fully repeated. For example, a reference to Gawain's
bleak mood when denied the pleasure of good food, including the direct
quote "ther he fonde noght hym byfore the fare that he lyked," is used
on p. 3 to illustrate the connection between food and mood, and then
the same the reference and quote reappear on p. 107 to make a similar
point. In a volume this short (200 pages of text, plus back matter),
the editor should have identified and eliminated such reiterations,
especially when the argument could have been supported by a fresh
quotation selected from a new source.

Another drawback to the book's structure is that the rapid movement
between brief chapter sections leaves little room for analysis, and as
a result there is no overarching argument to the volume. To be fair,
the author's stated aim is more descriptive than analytic: "to
consider medieval cooks in the context of time and circumstance, to
show how they were presented in the art and commentary of the period,
how they functioned, and how they coped with the limitations and
expectations which faced them in different social settings" (ix).
While an extensive amount of textual evidence is presented to that
effect, the author seems to take those sources at face value, when a
more critical reading might reveal a deeper and more nuanced
understanding of the context. For example, following the description
of a young woman kneading dough "for her playser and disporte"
presented as a rare "glimpse of the lady of the house at work,"
Henisch simply concludes: "She was really enjoying herself" (111-112).
This quick judgment ignores the fact that the scene is gleaned from a
moral tale juxtaposing a good niece, rewarded for her
affectionateness, with a bad niece, punished for her vanity. Given the
context, which would value moral truth over realism, the attentive
reader would expect the good girl to embody societal notions of female
goodness. The pleasure the character finds in domestic tasks might
therefore reveal much about her society's expectations and values, but
whether that means real women found true delight in what can be back-
straining work remains open to debate. This anecdote is followed
immediately by a section entitled "The Balancing Act," in which
comments on the "grim picture of the domestic misery for a husband
cursed with a feckless wife" (113) again beg the question of what grim
reality the housewife may have faced.

The comprehensive endnotes (531 for 200 pages of text) suggest that
the volume is intended for an academic as well as popular audience.
Scholars, however, will find little new material in The Medieval
, which recycles a large number of textual and visual
references from the author's 1976 book, Fast and Feast: Food in
Medieval Society
. The passage from Sir Gawain and the Green
mentioned above, for example, had already appeared in
Fast (71). Of the nineteen illustrations included in The
Medieval Cook
, six are repeats from Fast and several others
were also discussed, although not reproduced, there. Not only is a
substantial amount of material found already in the author's earlier
work, but it was often presented that first time in a fuller context
that provides more satisfying insight. Unfortunately, the student or
scholar cannot easily turn to that more developed exploration since in
the numerous instances of reused exempla that I detected, not once did
the endnotes indicate that the passage had been cited previously.
While the lack of cross-referencing will not disturb the general
reader--in fact, such heavy notations would have been off-putting to
many--it does diminish the volume's utility to the academic community.
Henisch's own conclusion offers a fitting summary of The Medieval
's strengths and weaknesses: "With patience and close
attention, it is possible to form a vivid, if not entirely coherent,
impression of their craft, a patchwork pieced together from bright
scraps and stray sightings" (202). While specialists will regret the
lack of a coherent argument, the general audience will be seduced by
the lively medley of cooks and kitchens the book presents

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

I'm shocked! Shocked!

From the New York Times Magazine:

Worse yet, for all of America’s time in Afghanistan — for all the money and all the blood — the lack of accomplishment is manifest wherever you go. In Garmsir, there is nothing remotely resembling a modern state that could take over if America and its NATO allies left. Tour the country with a general, and you will see very quickly how vast and forbidding this country is and how paltry the effort has been.

And finally, there is the government in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai, once the darling of the West, rose to the top of nationwide elections in August on what appears to be a tide of fraud. The Americans and their NATO allies are confronting the possibility that the government they are supporting, building and defending is a rotten shell.
Come on now, possibility? These people should be old enough to remember the Vietnam War.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"We should avoid simple dichotomies."

I had a pleasant shock this weekend. I found out that I had already read, some years ago, a key work by one of the most recent winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, Elinor Ostrom. Her book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, is relevant to the questions that Phil Paine and I have addressed in connection with our interest in a world history of democracy. Brad DeLong's blog directed me to this entry on Marginal Revolution which explains some of the reasons her work is considered interesting and important:

Elinor Ostrom and the well-governed commons

Elinor Ostrom may arguable be considered the mother of field work in development economics. She has worked closely investigating water associations in Los Angeles, police departments in Indiana, and irrigation systems in Nepal. In each of these cases her work has explored how between the atomized individual and the heavy-hand of government there is a range of voluntary, collective associations that over time can evolve efficient and equitable rules for the use of common resources. [emphasis SM]

With her husband, political scientist Vincent Ostrom, she established the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis in 1973 at Indiana University, an extraordinarily productive and evolving association of students and professors which has produced a wealth of theory, empirical studies and experiments in political science and especially collective action. The Ostrom's work bridges political science and economics. Both are well known at GMU since both have been past presidents of the Public Choice society and both have been influenced by the Buchanan-Tullock program. You can also see elements of Hayekian thought about the importance of local knowledge in the work of both Ostroms (here is a good interview). My colleague, Peter Boettke has just published a book on the Ostrom's and the Bloomington School.

Elinor Ostrom's work culminated in Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action which uses case studies to argue that around the world private associations have often, but not always, managed to avoid the tragedy of the commons and develop efficient uses of resources. (Ostrom summarizes some of her findings from this research here). Using game theory she provided theoretical underpinnings for these findings and using experimental methods she put these theories to the test in the lab.

For Ostrom it's not the tragedy of the commons but the opportunity of the commons. Not only can a commons be well-governed but the rules which help to provide efficiency in resource use are also those that foster community and engagement. A formally government protected forest, for example, will fail to protect if the local users do not regard the rules as legitimate. In Hayekian terms legislation is not the same as law. Ostrom's work is about understanding how the laws of common resource governance evolve and how we may better conserve resources by making legislation that does not conflict with law.

The MR links and comments by its readers are worth following up. In particular I am grateful for the link to this appreciation of the work of Elinor and her husband Vincent, which includes long interviews with both of them. I think anyone interested in the history of government or economic history or institutional history of just about any sort would benefit from looking at this. The quote that I used for the title of this post comes from Vincent, who said, in a rectification of names spirit,
Language always simplifies. Yet, recourse to overly abstract simplifications such as "states" and "markets," "capitalism" and "socialism," the "modern" and the "less developed," is becoming increasingly useless. We must take care not to reify concepts and conceptual models -- to treat them as though they are realities. We should avoid simple dichotomies.

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, 2009

The Big Picture has a great portfolio of Fall pictures. This one is from Highlands, New York on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009. Click for a larger view.

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Fencing: A Renaissance Treatise, First English translation, edited by Ken Mondschein

I haven't actually seen this book yet, but it is in an area I have some interest in. Here's part of the publisher's blurb:

Camillo Agrippa’s widely influential Treatise on the Science of Arms was a turning point in the history of fencing. The author — an engineer by trade and not a professional master of arms — was able to radically re-imagine teaching the art of fencing.


His treatise was also a microcosm of sixteenth-century thought. It examines the art, reduces it to its very principles, and reconstructs it according to a way of thinking that incorporated new concepts of art, science and philosophy.

Contained within this handy volume are concrete examples of a new questioning of received wisdom and a turn toward empirical proofs, hallmarks of the Enlightenment. The treatise also presents evidence for a redefinition of elite masculinity in the wake of the military revolution of the sixteenth century. At the same time, is offers suggestive clues to the place of the hermetic tradition in the early-modern intellectual life and its implications for the origins of modern science.

Camillo Agrippa’s Treatise on the Science of Arms was first published in Rome in 1553 by the papal printer Antonio Blado. The original treatise was illustrated with 67 engravings that belong to the peak of Renaissance design. They are reproduced here in full.

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Obama's Nobel

When something big (or at least noisy) like this happens, I don't feel obliged to add an opinion that has already been expressed, more or less.

However, if anyone actually cares what I as an individual think, here are two posts that are close to my take:

Juan Cole, Obama as Nobelist, Obama as game-changer.

Nashville fan at Daily Kos, Nobel Shock shows America oblivious to its reign of terror.

Image: The Nobel Peace Center in Oslo.

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If you want to slam academia... don't need to go after advanced literary theory. In fact there are juicier and more important targets. From D-squared Digest, via Brad DeLong:

Part Five - How Freaked Is Economics?

Well, I promised myself I'd finish this before the sequel appeared in the shops, and the conclusion has been made, shall we say, somewhat easier by the fact that the burden of my conclusion - that there is something terribly, horribly wrong with the state of modern economics - has become somewhat of an open door to push against. I swear that my notes for this review (begun in 2003!) contain the draft passage:

"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"

And we did, and it was; thank God nobody told the truth to HM The Queen, or the high brows of the economics profession might be decorating a series of pikestaffs outside Traitors' Gate.

The basic problem with the Freakonomics era was that the profession abandoned the study of production, consumption and exchange. I don't wholly agree with Lord Skidelsky, but he is right - economics is the study of the economy, it's not the study of "rational choice" or "behaviour" in the abstract, and the fact that econometricians have invented a huge part of the toolkit of modern statistics doesn't mean that anything you can estimate using an econometrics package is thereby "economics".

We stopped doing economics and started doing awful amateur-hour sociology, basically, because we believed that all the major problems had been solved, that some form of dynamic general equilibrium was all that there was to be said about the economy considered as a system, and that the only interesting things to do were growth theory and finance. It is no coincidence that Freakonomics began in Chicago; for a guy like Levitt who doesn't possess the engineering-maths to be a finance theorist or the empirical skills to do endogenous growth, there was literally nothing to do.

The sociology of academia in the USA also played its part, as James Heckman spotted at the time. Because of the unenviable economics of the academic labour market in American universities, graduate students were encouraged to finish their PhDs according to a specific schedule, to write dissertations that were capable of being turned into journal articles in a specific way, and to follow fashion in citation-gathering. Heckman was tearing his hair out over this, obviously, as this made it more or less economically unviable to carry out the kind of economic work that he does (and did) - careful, time-consuming, incremental, often abstruse but always relevant to the very big questions of the economy.

And so we ended up with Freakonomics, the disciplinary equivalent of the battery chicken. The subject matter became more and more cutesy and trivial, methodological corner-cutting in "natural experiments" became the norm, and the idea that there could actually be a subject of macroeconomics became almost quaint. ...

But however things have turned out, my intuition is that Freakonomics has had its moment in the sun. The central selling point was always, basically, academic machismo; the presumption on the part of economists that because they were "smart" in the Larry Summers sense, they could turn their hand to anything and the rest of the world was bound to listen to them. Those days, to put it mildly, are gone.

To be able to put such material before student-age readers (of whom I hope I still have some) was one big reason for starting this blog. Will you find a killer critique like this in a textbook? Unlikely.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Don't underestimate those little guys

Phil Paine has added to his ongoing reading list. I found this review particularly interesting:

Antoine de la Sale,[Petit] Jehan de Saintré [c. 1455]

This fourteenth century French prose work is an odd item. It's a "roman" — prose fiction. But it's nothing like the fantastic fantasies that dominated the era. No quests, no dragons, no trips to the moon. Instead, it's a realistic narrative focusing on tournaments and deeds of arms. In the first few chapters, the central character arrives at court as a page, at the age of thirteen. A Great Lady immediately begins a campaign of seduction, twisting and tormenting the lad until he surrenders his innocence. This is coyly, but still pretty blatantly recounted by the author. But the romance is meant to be edifying as well as titillating... she is given to quoting Greek philosophers while making love, and recommends a long list of books for him to read between carving the King's roasts, learning to fight, and providing her with stud service. Few teenagers have to face this kind of stress, today.

By sixteen, he becomes a star of the jousting circuit, albeit embarrassingly short and skinny for the role. This is continuously rubbed in, as contender after contender is fooled into under-estimating him. There's not a lot of plot, and not much character development. There's endless detailed description of clothing, meals, gifts exchanged between nobles, and, most of all, the pageantry of the tournament. Jousts are described blow-by-blow:

A la ije course le seigneur de Loisselench [a visiting Polish knight] actainct Saintré a la buffe tellement que a bien peu ne l'endormist, et Saintré l'ataint au front de son heaume et perça son buef d'argent tellement que au passer que les cahevaulz firent le sien tourna ce devant darriere, et a ceste course Saintré un peu se reposa.
A la iije course le seigneur de Loisselench, tout ainsin que Saintré l'avoit actaint, il actaint Saintré et lui emporta sur la pointe de sa lance son chappellet de byevre tout ainsin garny comme it estoit, et Saintré l'actaint ou hault de son grant gardebras qu'il lui faulsa avec son double et rompist les tresses, et le gardebras a terre vola, et alors recommença le cry et le bruit des gens et des trompectes tellement que a peine les pouoit on faire cesser.

Eventually, "little Jehan" goes off to war, joining the Crusade in Prussia, where he fights vast armies of "saracens" — the geography and anthropology are somewhat vague.

The riff on Jehan's small size reminded me of this French account by the Monk of St. Denis of the famous joust at St. Inglevert:

While a truce endured and there was hope of peace between the French and the English, Englishmen of the highest nobility were able to cross France freely for the sake of curiosity. There were always debates between the two groups concerning prowess and success in arms, and they argued about which of the two should be given more honor. The English were accustomed to keep silent about domestic calamities and to extoll their victories unendingly; which extremely displeased the French, who attributed that habit to presumption.

As a result those prominent knights and spirited youths, Reginald de Roye, Jean called le Maingre, alias Boucicaut, and the lord of Saimpy, aflame with zeal and vigor, resolved to settle the matter through an unprecedented deed of arms, which is worthy of being recorded. So that they might restore the worthy renown of the French chivalry and gain everlasting glory for the kingdom, they bound themselves by oath that they should measure their strength against any foreign men at arms; and they begged the king with the strongest entreaties and obtained permission with great difficulty, since in the judgment of all prudent men, they were attempting a task beyond their strength, since Saimpy was puny and thin, Boucicaut of the same stature but with better built limbs, and Reginald, likewise of medium size and superior to the others only in nimbleness. Thus the prudent advised the comrades that they should come to their senses and give up the project. They refused to do so, responding over and over that "Nature doesn't deny constant spirits to the small of stature." After gaining the king's support they had the deed of arms proclaimed to all lords and ladies in neighboring countries and especially in England by heralds accompanied by trumpeters. Without doubt this gave offense to the ears of many critics and incited envious statements: "Now, without doubt, the French are showing their pridefulness."

Of course, the three Frenchmen cleaned up.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A new translation of the Menagier de Paris

An excerpt of the review on the e-mail list, TMR-L (The Medieval Review), a useful and timely resource you can subscribe to free.

Greco, Gina L. and Christine M. Rose, translators. The Good
Wife's Guide (Le Menagier de Paris): A Medieval Household Book
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009. Pp. 384. $69.95. ISBN: 978-0-

Reviewed by Kate Kelsey Staples
West Virginia University

According to the fourteenth-century Le Menagier de Paris, the key to being a good wife included these edifying directives: "be your husband and to his commandments, whatever they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest" (104); "choose rather to please your husband than yourself, because his happiness must come before yours" (104); "it is through good obeisance that a wise woman
obtains her husband's love and, in the end, receives from him what she desires" (119); "protect [your future husband] from holes in the roof and smoky fires, and do not quarrel with him, but be sweet, pleasant, and peaceful with him"(139); "steer clear of swaggering and idle young men who live beyond their means and who, possessing no land or lineage, become dancers" (94). While perhaps shocking to modern sensibilities, or comical in turn, this fascinating and relatively understudied text overflows with suggestions for a woman's obedience, attention to reputation, proper piety, and correct conduct. The anonymous author also advises his audience, presumably his young wife, on the practicalities household management: when to transplant cabbage (212), how to delegate tasks to servants (section 2.3), in what ways to tend to ropy, musty, and moldy wine (221), and how to care for horses (223-228). Completing the manual of instruction is a rich selection of cooking menus and a guide to buying spices and foodstuffs, continuing the practical nature of the guidebook.

As the first modern English translation of Le Menagier de Paris, this edition makes a gem of a text accessible beyond French literary courses. With their clear translation, Gina Greco, Associate Professor of French, and Christine Rose, Professor of English, both at Portland State University, open spaces for discussion of the composition of the late medieval household, the reading practices of the bourgeoisie, late medieval culture, culinary practices, and women's history, more generally.

One of the greatest attributes of this edition is that Greco and Rose present Le Menagier de Paris as we may expect it to have originally appeared. There are only three surviving fifteenth-century manuscripts and one early sixteenth-century manuscript; the original is lost (2). The modern scholarly Middle French edition (Brereton and Ferrier, 1981) omits three sections of the text that appear in the
manuscripts: the Griselda tale, the Melibee tale, and Jacques Bruyant's Le Chemin de povrete et richesse (here, too, appear the first modern English translations of the latter two texts). Karin Ueltschi's Middle French and Modern French facing-page translation (1994) includes the tales of Griselda and Melibee, but consigns Le
poem to an appendix. As the translators rightfully point out, presenting it without these texts or in an alternate order, even if they were not originally compiled by the author, does a disservice to understanding reading practices, the author's goals, and household composition in late medieval France (5)...

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Monday, October 05, 2009

A big-city kid in the 1920s and 1930s

This account, by science fiction writer Frederik Pohl, sure feels like "early history" to me.

Some excerpts:

I count it one of the great good fortunes of my life that I grew up with all the resources of one of the world’s greatest cities within my reach. Young kids of the present, I do devoutly pity you, stuck in your pasteurized suburban developments except when Mom chauffeurs you into town. I had the city streets, always exciting in themselves, and I had the subways.

Of all the modes of mechanized urban transport man has devised, the subway is the most nearly perfect. I love them all, from the creaky tiny cars of Budapest to the shiny streamliners of Toronto, under ground and above. Moscow’s is beautiful. London’s is marvelously efficient. Paris’s runs engagingly from the super-technological to the quaint. But first loves are best, and New York’s subways are what I grew up on.

In the days of my youth the five-cent fare was sacred, and so for a nickel you could be carried from the Bronx to Coney Island, from sylvan Flushing to Wall Street. If you were a young boy and willing to take minor risks (jail, electrocution, things like that), you didn’t even need the nickel. I was six years old when I learned that you could ride free from the Avenue H station of the BMT just by climbing over the exit doors. If I chose to visit friends in Sheepshead Bay, I could ride there free, and ride back at the same economical rate just by climbing an embankment, stepping carefully over the third rail, and entering the platform of the station there.


It wasn’t my first burlesque show. Not by, even then, a number of years. ‘When I was a little kid, five or so, my parents had taken me with them to the Oxford Burlesque, near where Atlantic and Flatbush avenues met in Brooklyn. I liked the baggy-pants comedians, didn’t understand what the stripping was all about, but was thrilled to be included in something Grown-up.

I kept in touch with the Oxford, one way or another, all through my childhood. When my parents stopped taking me, as soon as I was old enough to pass the ticket taker’s scrutiny, I went by myself; and in the famine period between I would still skate down to the nearby Loft’s soda fountain, and often enough I’d see the chorus girls, makeup an inch and a quarter deep around their eyes, sipping sodas through a straw and gazing at themselves in the mirrored walls.


Let me tell you about Brooklyn. For the first part of Brooklyn’s life it was not a conquered province of New York City, it was a competitor. Even after the consolidation, it still competed. Brooklyn had its own baseball team (the Dodgers), its own library system (better than New York’s in every respect, except for, maybe, the Fifth Avenue reference facility), its own parks (after Frederick Law Olmsted designed Central Park in Manhattan, he took what he had learned to Brooklyn and laid out the even more spectacular Prospect Park), its own museums, its own zoo.

Downtown Brooklyn had its own department stores — Namm’s, Loeser’s, A & S — and I still think they were nicer than, and almost as big as, Macy’s or Gimbels. Downtown Brooklyn had four or five first-run movie houses, including the Brooklyn Paramount, as lavish a marble-staired temple as any in the world, at least until the Radio City Music Hall came along.

On Fulton Street, it even had legitimate theaters, with the same sort of bills as theaters in Boston or Chicago. Road companies of Broadway shows played there after the New York runs had closed, and sometimes Broadway shows opened there for tryouts...

Go read the whole thing.

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Heart and soul

In the next little while I will be reviewing Mark Pegg's A Most Holy War (on the Albigensian Crusade) for the Michigan War Studies Review. I am just now looking at it. It is a rather slim volume, and I rather expected that it would be an up-to-date -- or not -- summary of what is known about this 13th century crusade in southern France. But now I don't think so. For one thing, I was surprised and impressed by the preface in which Pegg lays it all out on the page, why and how he does history, which is with a great deal of personal involvement. Vide:
Any meditation on the past that starts with the presumption that some things are universal in humans or human society -- never changing, ignorant, immobile, -- is to retreat from attempting a historical explanation about previous rhythms of existence.... Arguing for immutable values from biology is no different from arguing for immutable values from theology -- selfish genes, selfish doctrines, they both deny history. Assuming that why we do what we do, what we think what we think, is somehow or other beyond our control, and that we would be this way in mind and body whether we lived in Cleveland in 1952 or Toulouse 1218, forfeits the vitality and distinctiveness of the past to the dead hand of biological determinism, cognitive hotwiring, psychological innateness, liberal pleas for bygone victims, conservative pleas for God-given principles, and amaranthine mush about authenticity.
I have nothing much to say about this except: I know (and have loved) the word amaranthine from the Gormenghast books I read 40 years ago, ("By all that's amaranthine" said the doctor) and I've yet to find an opportunity to use it myself. Pegg obviously tries harder.

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