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  • feedwordpress 08:01:57 on 2018/08/16 Permalink
    Tags: Ben Jonson, , , comedy of humours, , history, , ,   

    “A town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.”*… 

     

    bookstore-slide-2MCD-jumbo source

    It was in Athens in the 4th Century BC that a man named Zeno walked into a bookshop. He had been a successful merchant, but suffered a terrible shipwreck on a journey out of Phoenicia, losing a priceless cargo of the world’s finest dye. He was 30 years old and facing financial ruin, but this catastrophe stirred his soul to find something new, though he didn’t quite know what.

    One day, immersed in browsing a bookstore collection, many volumes of which have been lost to history forever, Zeno heard the bookseller reading out loud a passage from a book by Xenophon about Socrates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. With some trepidation, he approached the owner and asked, “Where can I find a man like that?” and in so doing, began a philosophical journey that would literally change the history of the world. That book recommendation led to the founding of Stoicism and then, to the brilliant works of SenecaEpictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — which, not lost to history, are beginning to find a new life on bookshelves today. From those heirs to Zeno’s bookshop conversion, there is a straight line to many of the world’s greatest thinkers, and even to the Founding Fathers of America.

    All from a chance encounter in a bookshop.

    It would be an understatement to say that great things begin in bookstores, and that countless lives have been changed inside them…

     

    Why spend time amongst the shelves? “Good Things Happen in Book Stores.”

    * Neil Gaiman, American Gods

    ###

    As we browse in bliss, we might spare a thought for Benjamin Jonson; he died on this date in 1637.  A poet, actor, literary critic, and playwright (he popularized the comedy of humours), he is best remembered for his satirical plays Every Man in His Humour (1598), Volpone, or The Fox (c. 1606), The Alchemist (1610), and Bartholomew Fair (1614), and for his lyric and epigrammatic poetry.

    Eclipsing Christopher Marlowe, Jonson is generally regarded as the second most important English playwright during the reigns of Elizabeth I of James VI and I (after Shakespeare, with whom Jonson had a professional rivalry, but on whose death Jonson wrote “He was not of an age, but for all time”).  Indeed, while Shakespeare’s impact continues apace to this day, Jonson’s impact was arguably even bigger in the relatively-more immediate timeframe: he had broad and deep influence on the playwrights and the poets of the Jacobean era (1603–1625) and of the Caroline era (1625–1642).

    220px-Benjamin_Jonson_by_Abraham_van_Blyenberch source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:55 on 2018/08/14 Permalink
    Tags: atomism, , emergence, Ernest Everett Just, history, , , , ,   

    “All you can do is hope for a pattern to emerge”*… 

     

    smiling_baby_10-1024x576

    If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

    This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

    But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

    The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex…

    Does everything in the world boil down to basic units – or can emergence explain how distinctive new things arise?  Paul Humphreys helps us understand at “Out of nowhere.”

    [Image above: source]

    * Chuck Palahniuk, Lullaby

    ###

    As we forage for the fundamental, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Ernest Everett Just; he was born on this date in 1883.  A pioneering biologist, academic, and science writer, he contributed mightily to the understanding of cell division, the fertilization of egg cells, experimental parthenogenesis, hydration, cell division, dehydration in living cells, and the effect of ultra violet rays on egg cells.

    An African-American, he had limited academic prospects on his graduation from Dartmouth, but was able to land a teaching spot at Howard University.  Just met  Frank R. Lillie, the head of the Department of Zoology at the University of Chicago and director of the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Woods Hole, Mass.  In 1909 Lillie invited Just to spend first one, then several summers at Woods Hole, where Just pioneered the study of whole cells under normal conditions (rather than simply breaking them apart in a laboratory setting).  In 1915, Just was awarded the first Spingarn Medal, the highest honor given by the NAACP.

    But outside MBL, Just experienced discrimination.  Seeking more opportunity, he spent most of the 1930s in various European universities– until the outbreak of WW II hostilities caused him to return to the U.S. in late 1940.  He died of pancreatic cancer the next year.

    Ernest_Everett_Just source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:28 on 2018/08/13 Permalink
    Tags: , denial, denialism, genocide, history, , , Thomas theorem, , vaccines, William I. Thomas   

    “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked.”*… 

     

    ostrich denial

    We are all in denial, some of the time at least. Part of being human, and living in a society with other humans, is finding clever ways to express – and conceal – our feelings. From the most sophisticated diplomatic language to the baldest lie, humans find ways to deceive. Deceptions are not necessarily malign; at some level they are vital if humans are to live together with civility. As Richard Sennett has argued: “In practising social civility, you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say.”

    Just as we can suppress some aspects of ourselves in our self-presentation to others, so we can do the same to ourselves in acknowledging or not acknowledging what we desire. Most of the time, we spare ourselves from the torture of recognising our baser yearnings. But when does this necessary private self-deception become harmful? When it becomes public dogma. In other words: when it becomes denialism.

    Denialism is an expansion, an intensification, of denial. At root, denial and denialism are simply a subset of the many ways humans have developed to use language to deceive others and themselves. Denial can be as simple as refusing to accept that someone else is speaking truthfully. Denial can be as unfathomable as the multiple ways we avoid acknowledging our weaknesses and secret desires.

    Denialism is more than just another manifestation of the humdrum intricacies of our deceptions and self-deceptions. It represents the transformation of the everyday practice of denial into a whole new way of seeing the world and – most important – a collective accomplishment. Denial is furtive and routine; denialism is combative and extraordinary. Denial hides from the truth, denialism builds a new and better truth…

    Denialism is not a barrier to acknowledging a common moral foundation; it is a barrier to acknowledging moral differences. An end to denialism is therefore a disturbing prospect, as it would involve these moral differences revealing themselves directly. But we need to start preparing for that eventuality, because denialism is starting to break down – and not in a good way…

    From vaccines to climate change to genocide, a new age of denialism is upon us. Why have we failed to understand it?  Keith Kahn-Harris on “Denialism: what drives people to reject the truth.”

    * Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

    ###

    As we fight to face up, we might send epistemologically-ambitious birthday greetings to William Isaac Thomas; he was born on this date in 1863.  A pioneering sociologist, he formulated a fundamental principle of sociology, now known as the Thomas theorem:  simply put, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

    Portrait_of_William_Isaac_Thomas source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:59 on 2018/08/12 Permalink
    Tags: , Berlage, , De Stijl, , history, , , utopian design   

    “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears”*… 

     

    city of the future

    Concept for Babel IID. The line drawing to the left shows the Empire State building for scale. Arcology, Paolo Soleri, 1969.

     

    For centuries, architects and urban planners have mixed the mundane with the fantastical as they imagined the cities of the future. While some ideas toyed with the building blocks, others reflected a desire to fundamentally reshape urban life — and to solve some of society’s most pressing problems. Their plans were a mix of ambition, realism, fantasy, and folly — but were the resulting ideas visionary, or just dreams of worlds that could never feasibly be built?…

    From Christopher Wren and his plan for London after the Great Fire of 1666 to Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Soleri, a consideration of visionary urban planning: could fantastical plans for the cities of tomorrow solve the real problems of urban life? Consider the case at “Architects of the Future.”

    For a treatment of urban history from a different perspective, see “The cities and mansions that people dream of are those in which they finally live.”

    Then, for an alternative to the top-down, utopian approach to urban planning, read Jane Jacobs.

    * Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

    ###

    As we contemplate community, we might spare a thought for Hendrik Petrus Berlage; he died on this date in 1934. The “Father of Modern architecture” in the Netherlands, Berage was deeply influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.  But he was probably most impactful in his influence on most Dutch architectural groups of the 1920s, including the Traditionaliststhe Amsterdam SchoolDe Stijl and the New Objectivists.

    220px-Berlage source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:40 on 2018/08/11 Permalink
    Tags: , , Fernando Arrabal, history, , , , , , ,   

    “A graceful taunt is worth a thousand insults”*… 

     

    cards

    Bumblepuppist

    Definition – a bad whist player

    Every so often you need a specific insult, and bumblepuppist is about as specific as they get. We will grant you that the game of whist is not as popular as it once was, having been edged out by newfangled card games such as euchre and canasta, but once upon a time whist was the most deucedly popular card game in the land. This ranks pretty high on the list of words which are likely inapplicable in your life, but imagine how excited you will be if you do meet someone who not only plays whist, but is bad at it, and you have the appropriate descriptor.

    Bumblepuppist is also sometimes rendered as bumblepupper, and the word for “whist played poorly or without regard for rules” is bumblepuppy (from bumble and puppy).

    “Bumblepuppy,” as defined by a renowned authority upon whist, is a game played by people who imagine that they are playing whist, but who in reality know nothing of that intricate game.
    — The New York Times, 1 Jul. 1883

    Just one in a collection of put-downs bigger than the sum of their parts: “8 Insults Made Up of a Noun and a Verb.”

    * Louis Nizer

    ###

    As we test the limits of civility, we might send fascinating birthday greetings to Fernando Arrabal Terán; he was born on this date in 1932.  A playwright, screenwriter, film director, novelist, and poet, the New York Times’ Mel Gussow has called him the last survivor among the “three avatars of modernism.”  In 1962, Arrabal co-founded the Panic Movement with Alejandro Jodorowsky and Roland Topor, inspired by the god Pan.  In 1990 he was elected Transcendent Satrap of The Collège de ‘Pataphysique, a “society committed to learned and inutilious research” (“inutilious” = “useless”).  Forty other Transcendent Satraps have been elected over the past half-century, including Marcel Duchamp, Eugène Ionesco, Man Ray, Boris Vian, Dario Fo, Umberto Eco, and Jean Baudrillard.  Arrabal spent three years as a member of André Breton’s surrealist group and was a friend of Andy Warhol and Tristan Tzara.  A chess fanatic (a passion he shared with Duchamp), Arrabal wrote a chess column for the French weekly L’Express for over thirty years.

    200px-Fernando_Arrabal,_2012 source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:03 on 2018/08/09 Permalink
    Tags: , , Betty Boop, , , Dizzy Dishes, history, Max Fleischer, sugar,   

    “I went to the bank and asked to borrow a cup of money. They said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m going to buy some sugar.”*… 

     

     

    sugartown_final_lw_smaller.0

    Sugar is sprinkled everywhere in our language. When children are good and happy, they are cutie pies. Cool stuff can be “sweet, man.” Our crush is a sweetheart, and our sweetheart might be our honey. “A spoonful of sugar,” as Mary Poppins croons, is a bribe, something to help “the medicine go down.” Sugar is leisure and celebration — what British birthday would be complete without the stickiness of cake frosting on fingers? It is, according to Roland Barthes, an attitude — as integral to the concept of Americanness as wine is to Frenchness. In the 1958 hit song “Sugartime,” to which Barthes was referring, the sunny, smiling McGuire Sisters harmonize sweetly, filling their mouths with honey: “Sugar in the mornin’ / Sugar in the evenin’ / Sugar at suppertime / Be my little sugar / And love me all the time.”

    And like anything pleasurable, sugar is often characterized as a vice. The flood of industrial sugar into packaged food has real public health consequences, but predictably, the backlash has taken on a puritanical zeal far beyond reasonable concerns. Sugar is “America’s drug of choice,” one headline claimed. “Is sugar the world’s most popular drug?” wondered another. Even those selling sugary food winkingly parrot the language of addiction — consider Milk Bar’s notoriously sticky, seductively sweet Crack Pie. A drug that decimated predominantly poor, black American communities is now a punchline for middle-class white indulgence.

    For black Americans, sweetness was an essential ingredient in Jim Crow-era stereotypes designed to keep newly emancipated people from their rights. Those stereotypes persist — and even generate profit — today…

    Sugar is survival. It is a respite for palates swept clean of childish joy for too long. It is sexual desire and pleasure, and also temptation and sin. And it is a commodity, one historically produced with some of the most brutal labor practices on the planet. In the Western imagination, sugar is pleasure, temptation, and vice — and in modern history, it is original sin…

    How a taste for sweetness, developed for survival, became a stand-in for everything good — and evil — about our culture: “Sugartime.”

    * Steven Wright

    ###

    As turn to the tart, we might send bodacious birthday greetings to that most fabulous of flappers, Betty Boop; she made her first appearance on this date in 1930.  The creation of animator Max Fleischer, she debuted in “Dizzy Dishes” (in which, still unevolved as a character, she is drawn as an anthropomorphic female dog).

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:24 on 2018/08/08 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , genre painting, history, Lucas van Leyden, ,   

    “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary”*… 

     

    ernst_ludwig_kirchner_-_czardas_dancers_-_google_art_project

    Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, CZARDAS DANCERS, 1908

     

    Ugliness has never been the subject of much scrutiny. For the most part, artists and thinkers have treated ugliness as an immutable category, filled with things they simply didn’t like. These included dangerous landscapes, people with disabilities, and objects that showed signs of too much use. When survival was a number one priority, people viewed anything potentially threatening as ugly. And for the most part, ugly works, particularly pieces that were unintentionally ugly, were forgotten to history.

    As a result, the most significant ugly works created before the nineteenth century were intentionally ugly, created by technically skilled painters who decided, for whatever reason, to depict an ugly subject. Often, ugly art was created as a warning. There but for the grace of God go I, screams the gargoyle clinging to a medieval facade. To contemporary eyes, the art of the Dark Ages looks ugly as a whole (consider this great Vox explainer about ugly babies in medieval paintings.) At the time, however, people didn’t consider the malformed dogs or awkward hat-wearing crows to be ugly, though they did know that doom paintings, which depict the worst-case afterlife scenarios, were hideous. Doom paintings highlight the difference between heaven and hell in order to strike fear into the heart of viewers and thus discourage them from, say, coveting their neighbor’s hot spouse or lying when the tax official came around to collect coins. Sometimes these paintings function like the medieval version of Jonathan Edward’s hellfire-and-brimstone sermons: they actually make the afterlife look interesting, stimulating, and perhaps even a little bit appealing…

    A consideration of the less-than-beautiful in Western art through the ages: “Ugliness Is Underrated: In Defense of Ugly Paintings.”

    * “Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace”  -Marquis de Sade

    (Echoed by Umberto Eco: “Beauty is, in some ways, boring. Even if its concept changes through the ages, nevertheless a beautiful object must always follow certain rules … Ugliness is unpredictable and offers an infinite range of possibilities. Beauty is finite. Ugliness is infinite, like God.”)

    ###

    As we agonize over aesthetics, we might spare a thought for Lucas van Leyden; he died on this date in 1533.  A seminal Dutch artist, he was among the first Dutch exponents of genre painting and is generally regarded as a very accomplished engraver.

    220px-Durer-Lucas-Van-Leyden

    A portrait of Lucas van Leyden by Albrecht Dürer, June 1521

    source

     

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:28 on 2018/08/07 Permalink
    Tags: , , Gulf of Tonkin, history, , , misinformation, restricted collections, ,   

    “Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often”*… 

     

    bodleian

    Interior of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, by David Loggan, 1675. Rijksmuseum.

     

    In the nineteenth century some librarians became preoccupied with the morality or lack thereof displayed in some of their texts. Consequently a number of libraries created special shelf marks or locations for restricted books to ensure that only readers with a proper academic purpose might access them…

    Take a tour of the restricted collections in remarkable libraries: “Do Not Read.”

    * Mae West

    ###

    As we cover our eyes, we might consider censorship’s close cousin, misinformation: it was on this date in 1964 that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  A response to a reported attack by the North Vietnamese Navy on the destroyer USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, the Resolution gave President Lyndon B. Johnson authorization, without a formal declaration of war by Congress, for the use of conventional military force in Southeast Asia– a right that Johnson exercised vigorously.

    In 1967, A senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation determined that the incident had not unfolded as earlier reported, and repealed the Resolution.  An NSA study of the incident, declassified in 2005, put it bluntly: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.”

    275px-Tonkin_Gulf_Resolution source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:27 on 2018/08/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , history, Johann Bernoulli, , , ,   

    “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it’s enemy action.”*… 

     

    complexity

    A couple of weeks ago, we considered the human urge to find significance, meaning in everyday occurrences: “All mystical experience is coincidence; and vice versa, of course.” Today, we consider the same phenomena from a more mathematical point-of-view…

    Was it a chance encounter when you met that special someone or was there some deeper reason for it? What about that strange dream last night—was that just the random ramblings of the synapses of your brain or did it reveal something deep about your unconscious? Perhaps the dream was trying to tell you something about your future. Perhaps not. Did the fact that a close relative developed a virulent form of cancer have profound meaning or was it simply a consequence of a random mutation of his DNA?

    We live our lives thinking about the patterns of events that happen around us. We ask ourselves whether they are simply random, or if there is some reason for them that is uniquely true and deep. As a mathematician, I often turn to numbers and theorems to gain insight into questions like these. As it happens, I learned something about the search for meaning among patterns in life from one of the deepest theorems in mathematical logic. That theorem, simply put, shows that there is no way to know, even in principle, if an explanation for a pattern is the deepest or most interesting explanation there is. Just as in life, the search for meaning in mathematics knows no bounds…

    Noson Yanofsky on what math can teach us about finding order in our chaotic lives.

    * Ian Fleming

    ###

    As we consider the odds, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to Johann Bernoulli; he was born on this date in 1667.  A member of the mathematically-momentous Bernoulli family, Johann (also known as Jean or John) discovered the exponential calculus and (with Leibniz and Huygens) the equation of the catenary.  Still, he be best remembered as teacher and mentor of Leonhard Euler.

    220px-Johann_Bernoulli2 source

     

     
  • feedwordpress 08:01:30 on 2018/08/05 Permalink
    Tags: bon-mot, , history, , Judy Canova, , , ,   

    “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”*… 

     

    bon-mots

    Both published in 1897, Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century and Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century, pretty much deliver what they promise — that is, a compilation of some of the best conversational witticisms of the two centuries. Examples from many famous and expected names adorn its pages — including Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Byron — but we are also introduced to more obscure though no less prolific sources, such as the actor Charles Bannister and the Irish politician John Philpot Curran. Although many of the bon-mots might not stand the test of time — so often firmly rooted in the language or the culture of the time as they are — some don’t fair too badly today. Also don’t miss the two introductions which each include entertaining examples of how various writers have defined “wit” (in Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth Century) and “humour” (in Bon-Mots of the Nineteenth Century). Look out also for the fun little “grotesques” that litter the pages of both volumes, by English artist Alice B. Woodward.

    Voltaire

    Bon-Mots of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century (1897)“; page through them at The Internet Archive.

    * Oscar Wilde (featured in the second volume treated above)

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    As we celebrate celerity, we might spare a thought for Judy Canova; she died on this date in 1983.  A veteran of a sister act in vaudeville (“the Three Georgia Crackers”), she got her break as a teenager when bandleader Rudy Vallée offered her a guest spot on his radio show in 1931.  Her career spanned five decades, during which she performed as a comedian, actress, singer, and radio personality, appearing on Broadway and in films.  She hosted her own self-titled network radio program, a popular series broadcast from 1943 to 1955, first on CBS, then NBC.

    Judy Canova source (and repository of audio examples of her work)

     

     
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